Yakusugi (屋久杉?) is a Japanese term for Cryptomeria that are more than 1,000 years old. Those less than 1,000 years are called "kosugi." (lit. small Japanese cedar)’. The Japanese cedars in Yakushima may also be referred to as "jisugi" (literally: "locally grown cedars")’, but this also encompasses the kosugi, and is a regional dialect.
In general, the Japanese cedar lives for about 500 years, but yakusugi trees live much longer. They grow on less nutritious granite soil slowly and have a very tight grain. The wood contains a lot of resin due to Yakushima's high rainfall and high humidity, making it resistant to rotting. As a result, these trees tend to have longer lives, and many larger trees have survived for more than 2,000 years. Famous examples include the Jōmon Sugi, Kigen-sugi and Wilson stump.
A stone monument from Kagoshima-jingū shrine says that Japanese cedar and hinoki wood was carried from Yakushima to rebuild the shrine around 1560. This is the earliest known record of yakusugi being used for logging.
In addition, after conquering Kyushu, Ishida Mitsunari, a samurai who later led the Western army in the Battle of Sekigahara, had Shimazu Yoshihisa, a territorial lord of Satsuma province, examine the amount of wood in Yakushima and around 1590. 11 vessels of Shōdoshima, an island located in the Inland Sea, carried yakusugi timbers to Osaka to build Daibutsuden, in Hōkō-ji, the temple in Kyoto built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), Tomari Jochiku, a Confucian monk of the Nichiren sect who had been born in Yakushima and served the Satsuma domain, saw the destitution of the islanders in Yakushima and submitted a plan to cut down yakusugi to the Shimazu clan daimyo. Full-scale logging began around 1640.
Yakusugi were used as shipbuilding materials or architectural materials, but most became roof tiles called hiragi (lit. flat wood). The islanders sent hiragi to Satsuma domain as an annual tribute. In addition, other yakusugi not used as an annual tribute were bought by the Satsuma clan in exchange for rice and other supplies.
In Meiji era (1868–1912), residents were restricted from cutting trees. Islanders objected to this and sued for return of the national forests, but lost. However, because this contributed to the subsequent poverty of Yakushima, Kagoshima woodcraft department announced "the plan of forest management in Yakushima" in 1921. Some of the main points include:
- The front of the mountain is solely for local profit.
- Local people may use the trees for firewood.
- Local people will be hired for cutting, planting, and raising woods and will be provided with birdlime trees, or trochodendron.
- The government will foot the bill for building gravel roads around Yakushima.
With this judgement yakusugi was nationalized and the timber industry was restored. As of 2001, all of the nationalized wood had been cut down except for the ones deemed national treasures, and so the logging in Yakusugi finished.
Since it is no longer permitted to cut Yakusugi today, souvenirs etc. are made from stumps of previously felled trees and trees that fell fallen naturally in typhoons. These trees are called domaiboku, which literally means buried trees in the ground.