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Debate: Comment (November 5, 2002)

Rejoinder to Prof. McCarty's Comments Concerning Agricultural Reform and Rural Japan

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

Today, the vast majority of Japanese citizens have no direct experience of agricultural work and consequently have no understanding of the inextricable link between the way the countryside looks and farming practices. In many respects, farmers are the unacknowledged sculptors of the land and the true architects of the today's magnificent countryside. It is their tireless efforts that sustain the intricate patchwork of fields and meadows which are skillfully woven upon the nation's soil. Without their ceaseless efforts, the shape and form of the land would quickly be transformed.

Maintaining boarders and fences takes up a lot of agricultural time and is an essential aspect of farming. When a farmer retires and nobody replaces him, nature quickly reinvades the surrendered territory, reshaping it to her own order. Since 1961, Japan has lost 1.3 million hectares of farmland with 54% of the decline due to farmers abandoning the agricultural sector and 36% of the fall due to the conversion of land to non-agricultural purposes.

In semi-rural areas, nature's onslaught is often halted as farmland is converted for building purposes to accommodate expanding urban sprawl. However, in agricultural regions located far away from urban population centres, it is quite a different story. While the populations of metropolitan areas seem to be constantly growing, most rural Japanese towns and villages are suffering serious depopulation problems. Since 1960, nearly 3 million farming households have disappeared and over 6.18 million agricultural jobs have vanished. Thus, as more farmers retire, more of the land they have cultivated and shaped will disappear. This process has already had a visible and distinctive impact on the countryside in some rural areas. It is certain to accelerate as more farmers retire. Remember, 54.1% of all agricultural workers were already aged 65 years and over in 2001.

The October 2002 farming proposals will allow joint stock companies to operate farms in specially designated areas. These new agro-businesses will be on a much larger scale than present day small private farms. These emerging enterprises are presumably the advance guard for future nationwide agricultural reforms and will soon spread out from the limited trial zones. While these new agro-companies should ensure the continuation of farming in Japan, the size of the new operations will most certainly change the layout and form of the present countryside. Field and boarder sizes will have to be adjusted to accommodate the new methods and practices.

Thus, today's elderly farmer is in reality the modern Atlas who holds up the rural world. When he retires, a huge swathe of the creations he has so carefully crafted in the Japanese soil will vanish with him. In a few decades, the current patterns of the land we are all so familiar with will disappear forever. In may be inevitable, it may be progress, but it is also rather sad.


Rural Japan Continues its Slow March towards Extinction: Government Announces New Agricultural Sector Reform Proposal
J. Sean Curtin, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 15 October 2002

Comment on Prof. Curtin's Article Concerning Agricultural Reform and Rural Japan
Steve McCarty, Debates, GLOCOM Platform, 29 October 2002

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