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Leaf life span, photosynthetic parameters and defensive traits were compared across seven species of deciduous broad-leaved tree seedlings native to northern Japan to test the ‘cost–benefit hypothesis’ that more productive leaves are more susceptible to herbivore attack than less productive leaves.Studies were made on three early successional species, Alnus hirsuta, Betula maximowicziana and Betula platyphylla ‘japonica’; one mid-successional species, Ostrya japonica, and three late-successional species, Carpinus cordata, Quercus mongolica ‘grosseserrata’ and Acer mono. Photosynthetic parameters and defensive traits (total phenolics, condensed tannin and toughness) of leaves were measured for each species, and a bioassay test with Eri silkmoth larvae (Samia cynthia ricini) was undertaken to evaluate differences between species in susceptibility to herbivore attack.Early successional species have a shorter leaf life span (62–88 d) than late successional species (155–187 d). Leaf nitrogen content and light-saturated photosynthetic rate per unit leaf area (Psat-area) and per unit leaf mass (Psat-mass) were negatively correlated with leaf life span. The nitrogen content of early successional species was about 30 mg g−1 and that of late successional species was about 16 mg g−1. Leaf toughness and the C/N ratio were positively correlated with leaf life span, although condensed tannin was not correlated with leaf life span. The bioassay test showed that the number of days the larvae survived was negatively correlated with leaf life span. Average survival of larvae feeding on leaves of A. hirsuta, which has the shortest leaf life span, was 14·4 d and that of Q. mongolica, which has the longest leaf life span, was 6·6 d. The number of days of larval survival was positively correlated with leaf nitrogen content. There was no correlation between days of larval survival and defensive traits.These results indicate that species with a shorter leaf life span have higher photosynthetic productivity and are more susceptible to herbivore attack than species with a longer leaf life span. This supports the ‘cost–benefit hypothesis’.