Despairing correctly about Japanese agriculture
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.