Abstract Aim Information has been compiled on disturbance regimes and the life-history characteristics of Betula platyphylla var. japonica (Miq.) Hara and B. maximowicziana Regel to investigate the impact of humans on the present distribution patterns of these two congeneric tree species. Location The study area is in the central region of the northern Kitakami Mountain Range, located in the northeast of Honshu Island, Japan. Methods First, the present distributions of B. maximowicziana and B. platyphylla var. japonica were mapped at the landscape scale. To examine the factors affecting the distribution patterns, topographic features and past land use were taken into account. Second, life-history traits of both species were clarified at various growth stages either by fieldwork or through a literature search. Previous studies have provided some information on seed production, seed dispersal, seedling dynamics, sprouting, and growth. In the present study, field observations and experiments were conducted regarding seed-bank formation, size and age at reproduction, and the life span of canopy trees. Results Betula platyphylla var. japonica and B. maximowicziana were spatially segregated in the studied landscape (14,000 ha). The distribution of each species was correlated more strongly with land use at the beginning of the twentieth century than with site environmental factors such as altitude or slope angle. Betula platyphylla var. japonica was distributed more frequently on former grasslands, whereas B. maximowicziana was almost exclusively limited to past old-growth forests. As typical pioneers, the two species showed similar life-history traits but differed in several critical points. Betula platyphylla var. japonica has a vigorous sprouting ability, which might increase its resistance to burning and logging, whereas B. maximowicziana forms a persistent seed bank in the soil, indicating an advantage in regenerating in disturbances found in forest communities. Other critical differences were detected in age-related characteristics such as minimum age of reproduction and life span. Main conclusions The earlier reproductive maturity and the shorter life span of B. platyphylla var. japonica indicate a shorter population cycle than that for B. maximowicziana. The latter would be excluded from grasslands that were burned frequently, as a result of the longer time span before initial reproduction and its poor sprouting ability. In contrast, B. platyphylla var. japonica would be excluded from old-growth forests, where disturbance was infrequent, owing to its shorter life span and lack of a persistent seed bank.