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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 15, 2002)

Rural Japan Continues its Slow March towards Extinction: Government Announces New Agricultural Sector Reform Proposal

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

On Friday 12 October 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced plans to allow joint stock companies to operate farms in specially designated areas. While this news item was tucked away deep inside most national newspapers, it will probably have long-term socio-economic consequences for the Japanese countryside. Historically, only private individuals have been allowed to run farms in Japan, which makes this seemingly mundane policy initiative a very radical idea. If these proposals are implemented, they will have a major impact on agriculture and accelerate ongoing changes, which have already caused a large swathe of rural Japan to disappear. In 2001, Japan had about 4.79 million hectares of farmland in cultivation compared to 6.09 million hectares in 1961. The main reason for the decrease in cultivated land is farmers abandoning the agricultural sector. This accounted for 54% of the decline with the conversion of land to non-agricultural purposes representing 36% of the fall.

Since about 1960, the importance of agriculture has rapidly diminished, which is witnessed in the GDP figures. In 1960, agriculture accounted for about 9% of Japan's GNP, by 1999 this figure had shrunk to just 2%. In the fifties, a large proportion of the Japanese population was working on the land, but today the situation is completely different. Over the last few decades, agricultural communities have been decimated as people have flocked to Japan's ever expanding cities. In 1960 there were 6.06 million farm households, which had almost halved to 3.07 million in 2001.

On the same day that Koizumi made his proposals in Tokyo, I was at the other end of the country watching potatoes being harvested in a large field just outside the tranquil city of Kitami in Eastern Hokkaido. It is now harvest time on the island and most of the surrounding fields were full of busy farmers gathering in a variety of crops. It is difficult to envisage that within a decade or two such picture-postcard scenes for which Hokkaido is so famous may have vanished forever.

Autumn is perhaps the most beautiful time of year on Japan's mighty northern island. The leaves have been transformed from a sea of green hues into a symphony of rainbow colours. Immersed in Hokkaido's wonderful nature, I observed three elderly couples vigorously gather up countless potatoes into huge steel containers. I wonder if these busy country folk had any idea that in a few decades the plans being laid out in far away Tokyo could transform their picturesque way of life. Despite their age, the six farmers were working as a perfectly synchronized team, efficiently plucking up the potatoes as they hurriedly shuttle to and fro across the enormous field. They were using modern agricultural equipment, which made their task much easier and far less labour-intensive than it had been a few decades before. I still have vivid memories of digging up potatoes by hand when I was young and living in Sweden. Back then, the entire family, including grandparents and young children, were all needed to harvest the crop. Just thirty years ago, it was exactly same in Hokkaido, when armies of farming families swarmed the fields at potato-harvesting time. How much agricultural practices in Hokkaido and the rest of Japan have changed in such a relatively short space of time. Now, the groundwork is being laid for a next phase in the transformation of the agricultural sector.

Farming maybe very different in Hokkaido from the rest of the country, but it faces almost identical challenges. In August, I observed rice harvesting near Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture and in late September I had an opportunity to explore fruit orchards in the rural backwaters of Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku. From one end of Japan to the other, the farming story is the same. The working population in agriculture is rapidly declining and overwhelmingly comprises of elderly people. These factors are a key component driving the Koizumi initiative.

In 2001, it was estimated that 3.82 million individuals were employed in the agricultural labour force, in 1960 there were over 10 million. Most alarmingly, senior citizens account for over half the people still engaged in agriculture. In 2001, 54.1% of all agricultural workers were aged 65 years and over.

As the Kitami potato harvesters illustrate, those who remain behind are predominantly in their latter years. Young people are reluctant to become farmers and when the current generation is too old to carry on, their farms will largely disappear. Thus, the current government proposals are an inevitable response to the situation. Along with the vanishing rural way of life, a lot of Japanese traditions are also becoming extinct. While economic policies can be formulated to deal with agricultural problems, unfortunately they cannot preserve the traditions and way of life that are being lost. It is a sad to think that in a few decades time, the beauty and customs of Japanese rural life will be little more than fading memories. This sobering thought should encourage us all to get out in the countryside as much as possible to enjoy this great Japanese treasure before it disappears forever.

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