Despairing correctly about Japanese agriculture

KYOTO —

With farming communities in demographic decline, pending Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and the specter of some farmland being contaminated by radiation for decades, it is safe to say that Japanese agricultural policy is in a bit of a quandary. In his wonderfully-titled book “The Correct Way to Despair About Japanese Farming” (Nihon no nogyo e no tadashii zetsubo ho) (Shinshosha Shinsho, 2012), Meiji Gakuin University professor of agricultural economics Yoshihisa Godo seeks to dispel multiple misconceptions about the state if farming while warning of what he considers to be the true crisis confronting it.
Godo cautions that virtually any commentary by so-called “experts” (including himself) is suspect, since they are not actually farmers. Done properly, farming is a complex craft that involves both a technical and experiential understanding of the environmental, climatic and even social conditions of a field or rice paddy. It is simply impossible for anyone who does not farm to be a true “expert” just by reading - or even writing the textbooks. According to Godo farming involves two elements, technique and craft. Technique can be taught, learned from a book, described in a manual. Craft cannot. It is possible to farm using technique alone, but the results are mediocre at best.

He uses a sushi analogy to explain the difference: you can train someone how to make sushi and pay them minimum wage to fill plastic packs full of the stuff for quick sale in the supermarket; the process can even be mechanized. That is technique. By contrast, becoming an “itamae-san” sushi chef takes years and requires a deep understanding of each ingredient and how they interact, and understanding that can only be acquired through experience. That is the craft, and it can never be mechanized. In farming, only craft properly addresses a fundamental truth: that plants and animals are living things. Raising them to be healthy living things makes them taste better, more resilient and more resilient to bad weather and disease.

Unfortunately, various forces are conspiring to encourage technical farming at the expense of craft. He opens with a description of two farmers whose skills were legendary yet who died without passing them on to the next generation. This is the real crisis in Japanese farming, one that is hidden behind fluffy media stories about cute young ladies having a go at tilling the soil, or corporations growing vegetables in bacteria-free factories. Godo has particular scorn for such facilities, not only because they involve replacing free sunlight with expensive electrical lighting, but because as a business they actually have a high failure rate. Despite the media attention generated by factory farming, this reality rarely gets reported, possibly because it runs counter to popular buzz about corporations “saving” agriculture and turning it into export growth through economies of scale, mechanization, rationalization and dehumanization - the ultimate expression of craftless technical farming. While factory farming may seem promising, it can only run into the same wall as other types of manufacturing in Japan: the fact that it will ultimately be cheaper to do it in other countries.

When it comes to technical farming, Japan simply cannot compete with nations like Canada, Australia or the U.S. and their vast expanses of flat land ripe for mechanized planting and harvesting. In Godo’s view Japan should be encouraging and competing through craft farming – the art and experience of veteran farmers that both takes into account the complexities of Japan’s climate and topography and makes it possible to drive higher margins out of even a small patch of properly conditioned soil. He gives as an example of a craft farmer who makes tens of millions of yen by growing high-quality sanchu leaves for Korean barbecue restaurants. Unfortunately, most of what passes for “craft” farming involves nothing more than marketing gimmicks – attaching the grower’s picture to a box of vegetables or mindlessly following arbitrary guidelines in order to call mediocre produce “organic,” a title that is easily misused to unload misshapen, dirty foodstuffs at premium prices.

Godo dismisses the oft-repeated trope that the Japanese are particularly discerning consumers when it comes to food. In reality, the average Japanese person no longer has any idea what good food should actually taste like, their palates having been dulled by decades of declining quality and nutritional content. Similarly, the notion that increased demand in China and other Asian countries for “Japanese-quality” agricultural products will provide an economic boost is nothing short of fantasy. He points out the irony of the Japanese decrying other countries shunning Japanese agricultural products due to supposedly overblown fears of radioactive contamination, since Japan has used similarly exaggerated concerns about food safety to exclude foreign meat and produce for decades.

He is careful not to idealize farmers either – in fact he regards the sentimental stereotypes so easily attached to Japanese farmers and farming as part of the problem. To Godo, the popular image of farmers as salt-of-the earth, wise yet socially-disadvantaged members of society is rubbish. Firstly, farmers like pachinko and easy money as much as anyone else. Secondly, since most have their own homes and farmland and may already be drawing pensions or be weekend farmers with regular jobs, they are actually better off financially than many of their urban compatriots, even before agricultural subsidies and tax breaks kick in.

Current agricultural policies drive farmers away from craft. In Godo’s view a major source of the current crisis in agriculture is land use policy. Farmland is lightly taxed but must be registered and used for agriculture, making it difficult to rezone for other uses. Yet enforcement is patchy and some landowners have been quietly getting away with putting their plots to other uses. It is hard to expect a farmer to toil at his fields if the guy down the lane is making a nice income off of an illegal parking lot. Since this flaunting of the law has been going on now for decades, the government has no accurate grasp of how much registered farmland is actually being used for agriculture, a situation which makes most discussions about policy pointless. Gōdo’s proposes nothing short of a land survey to prepare a modern-day “Domesday Book” of farmland, which can be the starting point for figuring out how to use it properly.

Yet recent “deregulation” that both makes it easier to rezone agricultural land and puts the decisions in the lands of local communities has also contributed to the problem. Deregulation has also made it easier for companies to engage in farming, but some may be more interested in the real estate opportunities than actual farming. The characteristics of good farmland – flatness, sunlight and good road access – are also good for shopping malls and tract housing. So for some farming communities the prospect of their low-priced vegetable fields being converted into higher value land may be just around the corner. Why stand in the mud when you can make a nice packet selling out to a real estate developer? Even if you would rather farm, do you want to be the holdout that ruins a deal for your neighbors? 
This situation affects newcomers to farming as well. Farmers are reluctant to sell good farmland – particularly if a shopping mall might be on the horizon. They might lease some land to a young farmer, but it can take years of trial and error to get soil conditions right for craft farming - wasted effort if the landlord terminates the lease to sell out to a developer.

Such a dynamic is part of the tragedy of farmers affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While the media covers those wishing to stay on their land despite potential contamination, what is left unspoken is how difficult it would be for them to move elsewhere and start anew. In addition to the problem of obtaining land, Japanese farming communities are notoriously exclusionary, making it hard for newcomers to be accepted, perhaps even more so if they are experienced farmers rather than humble greenhorns.

Godo also discusses the apparent breakdown of what was once called the “iron triangle” of agricultural bureaucrats, Diet members from over-represented farming constituencies, and the JA – the agricultural cooperatives that one had a symbiotic relationship with farmers and could be relied on to both implement policy and deliver votes. With JA taking a more corporate path its interests are diverging from those of its former core constituents – full time farmers. Yet farmers remain important partners, a source of additional problems arising from JA’s fuzzy regulatory status. A bank in all but name (though actually in name too: “JA Bank” apparently skirts the legal prohibition on non-banks calling themselves a bank (ginko) by using the English/katakana term “banku” instead), JA is allowed to conduct non-banking businesses that would be forbidden to other financial institutions, such as selling fertilizer to and buying produce from the farmers to whom they also lend money. The end product is dodgy loans, moral hazard and patchy regulation with the potential to result in a financial crisis on a scale equivalent to a meltdown of the Mizuho banking group.

None of this bodes well for the future of farming or dinner tables in Japan. Godo tries to find some bright spots and offer some solutions. But if farming is still somehow the cultural heart of Japan, the picture he paints is bleak indeed.   

Author Infomation

Colin Jones
Colin Jones
The author is a professor at Doshisha University Law School in Kyoto.
  • 6

    sakurala

    Thank you for this great article! I live in a farming area and am always wondering what will happen to it in the future. I rarely see anyone under 60 tending the fields and worry that we will lose their knowledge or fresh produce over the next decade. I also started my own garden and have come to appreciate the time, energy and knowledge that it takes to make great produce...so far my garden hasn't produced anything worth bragging about and half of it hasn't produced anything edible. Hopefully those who know their craft will find young, able-bodied people who have the intrest and drive to keep up the Japanese farming tradition.

  • 4

    gaijinfo

    Tell ya what? Get rid of all trade restrictions, and let the land owners choose what to do with their land, and let the citizens choose what they want to do with their money.

    And stop with the whole "ancient Japanese craft that no one appreciates" nonsense.

  • 9

    Kundong

    "According to Godo farming involves two elements, technique and craft."

    Technique is everything for 99% of foodstuffs.

    "Unfortunately, various forces are conspiring to encourage technical farming at the expense of craft."

    Yes its called economic sense. Farms in most parts of the world are run as efficient businesses. In Japan, farms are kept small and inefficient by protectionism, zoning rules and nostalgic crap about the farmer.

    Consequently food is incredibly expensive, and while there are beautiful watermelons costing JPY10,000 available in department stores (craft), your average school kid can't afford an apple a day (technique).

  • 3

    as_the_crow_flies

    Thanks for a great, informative, analytic article. Very rare on this site. It explained so many points I've often wondered about, specially the role of JA. I was particularly interested as yesterday I watched an NHK video about refugees in Fukushima - http://enenews.com/nhk-fukushima-documentary-like-being-jail-like-wrong-locked-video and in this was the case of a young, entrepreneurial dairy farmer from Iitate who has lost everything and is clearly suffering from depression. Also his mother, who has grown vegetables on a small plot in the village, starting from zero after settling the plot at the end of the war. The farmer has been pushed into limbo as his land is too contaminated to farm, while the mother has kept sane since family members rented her a new vegetable plot near her temporary housing, where she spends all her days tending the vegetables, which she then apparently gives away to other refugees in temporary housing. It's clear that the young farmer, who should be the future of agriculture in Japan, and probably a rarity as he's in his thirties, can only visit Hello Work every day and spend the rest of the time sitting around getting depressed. He can't get even a job of any kind in his area. My first thought was that there are so many places in Japan where they're crying out for people to farm, and that it's criminal that this guy's skills have been thrown on the scrapheap. The article has answered that - it seems some farmers would rather noone farm the land if it's not themselves or their own family. Surely JA could work as an intermediary to match this farmer with places elsewhere in Japan that are crying out for help? Perhaps if he went to work as a dekasegui for a few months elsewhere, he would manage to overcome his sense of hopelessness and envision a future for him beyond Fukushima.

    The strangehold of old, vested interests on agriculture in Japan are clearly going to choke it to death, if the aftermath of Fukushima is anything to go by - try to foist dodgy produce on the consumer, and guilt-trip them into eating it "to support the farmers", not taking an active and transparent role in checking and guaranteeing the safety of all produce on the market, and clearly, unable to think of new ways to support farmers in the most contaminated areas like Iitate to make a fresh start. The sight of the agricultural lobby in rising sun headbands at a mass anti-TPP rally earlier this year, just bears this out. All they can do is react, not act.

  • 0

    as_the_crow_flies

    It would be great to have a follow-up article to this, JT. Maybe one that analyses in more depth the possibility of addressing the manpower shortage, or on the possibility of farming more efficiently, while maintaining the craft aspect that the article touches on, or, the agricultural sector and the TPP.

  • 3

    tideofiron

    This is probably one of the best articles I've read in the last six months. I hope JT has more of these kinds of articles in the future.

  • 3

    Kundong

    Japanese farms are too small. Farms that small cannot be operated efficiently.

  • 0

    kominka

    Fresh in-season produce should not be a luxury. That domestic 300 yen, perfect looking apple is most likely shared by the family, instead of being an after school snack for a kid to ward off hunger until dinner time. And the 3000 yen "gift melon"... you know, the boxed melon no one seems worthy of eating, the one that gets passed around to at least 5 others, only to be way past its prime by the time someone finally decides its too gushy to pass on ...What a bunch of nonsense. Why are many people brainwashed into thinking that only Japanese farmers can grow good produce? A peach in-season should not cost 400 yen, period. Something here is very wrong. Join TPP, let the rich continue to buy the perfect looking produce, and the rest of us will be happy to eat an entire peach while standing over the kitchen sink.

  • 2

    cleo

    300 yen, perfect looking apple..... 3000 yen "gift melon"...A peach in-season should not cost 400 yen

    I have never, ever, paid that much for fruit and I eat fresh fruit every day.

    Apples - ¥300~¥350 for a bag of 5 or 6.

    Melon - ¥500~¥650

    Peaches - ¥350~¥450 for a tray of 4.

    But if TPP will bring down the price of plums, apricots, cheese and butter, I'm all for it.

  • 0

    badsey3

    Frank Lloyd Wright's ideal for America was Broadacre City. http://pontilly2007.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/broadacrecity.pdf -Each person would have a 1 acre plot and be self-sufficient (thru trade) when it came to food. -and you could actually generate your food in less space than that -http://www.growingpower.org/

    Urban agriculture is the new in. Multi-wall polycarbonate is fairly cheap and can be used to make a great greenhouse or cold frame. I feel the designs of unorganic homes are the prime limiter of growing plants.

    Most of the food you see in the grocery is fairly poor compared to truly fresh stuff. Start with peppers or tomatoes and grow from there.

    Frank Lloyd Wright also used Oya stone for the (2nd) Imperial Palace -which at that time was thought to be inferior or low grade. Nature is never inferior or low grade =don't turn your back to nature. Just because something is mis-shapen does not constitute imperfection. These people that expect perfection do not understand that nature does not make mistakes (is always true logically).

    Biointensive Method: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biointensiveagriculture http://www.growbiointensive.org/publicationsmain.html

  • 0

    Sabrage

    Excellent article.

  • 1

    Hero_us

    'In addition to the problem of obtaining land, Japanese farming communities are notoriously exclusionary, making it hard for newcomers to be accepted, perhaps even more so if they are experienced farmers rather than humble greenhorns.'

    'it seems some farmers would rather noone farm the land if it's not themselves or their own family'

    That's very much part of the problem, I experienced something similar when I was young and my father wanted to buy a derelict house in a ghost village in northern Spain (a REAL ghost village = last inhabitant gone for over 20 years), the owners of the houses that were starting to fall apart and who had deserted the place a generation before simply refused to sell at any cost properties that had 0 commercial value. I think they simply clung to them out of guilt for having abandoned the land their ancestors had lived on for countless generations.

  • 0

    ebisen

    Yes, I mostly agree. One single point: In Japan you can find truly organic food at excellent prices - One has to live in country side though, and become friends with some old farmer producing by the old methods (what I'm doing). Yes, his field smells strongly of cow manure every spring for about a month, and every autumn he burns the dried plant remains and spreads the ashes, but he uses absolutely no other chemical except "テデトル" to get rid of invasive species in his field. The vegetables this old guy produces are the tastiest I ever had. He makes sun-tomatoes, aubergines and hakusai (no solar house but grown in the open).

  • 0

    Jaymann

    A very enjoyable read.

    I am all for 'boutique' Craft-farms. If farmers here wish to engage in that kind of practice then more power to them. However, Japanese farmers also need to face the actual market worth of their produce and allow competition (especially from the efficient farms of NZ, Oz, the US etc.)

    The author may get all misty-eyed over the 'craft' of farming (almost implying that this craft doesn't exist elsewhere, which is of course a nonsense) but the business of feeding a vast population requires economies of scale and other economic efficiencies.

    Japan must face several major challenges in the years ahead. A good start would be ending the essentially illegal practices of JA; ending the inequitable weighted-votes of the rural electorates; and signing the TPP.

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