Thinking of Japan might conjure images of massive flashing screens, neon lights, over-crowded subway cars, and high-speed, state-of-the-art technology. At the same time, Japan might conjure images of rural villages surrounded by vast terraced rice fields among the mountains.
While it might be a widely used generalization, Japan can truly be a place of dynamic contrasts where the modern and ancient coexist side by side. It isn’t uncommon to encounter mega urban metropolises that rapidly transition to declining rural hamlets on a single train line.
In a previous article (linkedhere) I introduced some of the ways in which Japan is facing a major threat in the in the form of a rapidly aging society and steadily declining birthrates. One of the biggest threats is to the livelihood of the small countryside villages being left behind, both literally and figuratively, by massive rural exodus. These towns are under threat of going extinct, as some researchers have put it, as the younger generations move to urban centers in search of educational and career opportunities, and do not return.
Like a domino effect, the declining birthrate spurred on by career-centric urban metropolises, leaves no one behind in the towns and villages, bastions of long-held cultural customs and practices, to carry on traditions. More importantly, however, is the migration leaves no one behind to take over jobs in the agricultural industry. In fact, at the start of the last decade, only a mere 8.9% of people employed in agriculture were 39 years old or younger and by and large, the biggest population of people in the industry, making up 46.8% of the workforce, were people 70 years and older. This is particularly concerning as Japan is a country that has historically struggled to meet caloric self-sufficiency, which was at around 37% in 2019, resulting in a heavy reliance on imported goods to feed its people.
While urban migration and falling fertility rates are contributing to the declining agricultural industry, there are other complicated reasons that make revitalization difficult. These mainly include issues of landownership and the restrictions on farming organizations. Luckily, there seems to be some hope for the industry’s recovery with recent surges in investing and ideas about rural revitalization.
For one thing, the agricultural industry in Japan is mainly based on small land holdings and small-scale farming, unlike in the North America where industrial farms own expansive swaths of land. In the past, the government feared companies taking ownership of large areas of land and monopolizing them, possibly due to Japan’s long history with feudalism. They also feared that these companies would convert arable land to be used for other purposes. Traditionally, this meant that many farms were quite small, family-owned operations that dealt locally. The land reforms enacted following WWII and into the 1960s only reinforced this. These acts were both a blessing and a curse for agriculture as Japan industrialized. On the one hand, it helped to keep farmland ownership in the hands of farmers, helping to conserve agricultural land from being transformed for industrial use, but on the other hand, it did little to protect the farmers themselves from the economic troubles they would face in an industrializing nation.
As a result, land was either abandoned to eventually go fallow as farmers sought higher, livable salaries, or full-time farmers merely shifted to part-time farming, working their land on the weekends or in their spare time after changing careers. So, while the land was protected, it wasn’t necessarily being used efficiently for agricultural production, if being used for farming at all. This is where two problems facing the industry began to grow. One was the loss of economic incentive for younger generations to enter the agricultural workforce, and the other was the loss of agricultural land due to disuse. This is when the income gap that would eventually leave rural areas behind began to deepen.
Following reforms in the 50’s and 60’s, governmental agencies attempted to stimulate growth and opportunity in agriculture with more reforms in the 80’s. These allowed landowners to lease their properties for agricultural use and for farmers to come together to create management organizations to better utilize their resources and streamline operations. The idea was that this would help cut costs and create opportunities for large-scale agriculture operations by offering possibilities for outside investors to enter the industry. The result was the creation of what are known as agricultural corporations, or simply put, groups of stakeholders of farming operations that have legal identities and rights as individuals. While this doesn’t necessarily mean more people entered, or are entering, the workforce in the farming sector, it does mean that more money is available to help the industry grow.
Japan's agricultural corporations
While agricultural corporations have seen a small increase in the past decade, the growth has been slow. It also took further reforms into the 2000’s to allow for such opportunities to come about. Some of these changes included the ability for non-agricultural organizations to begin leasing government-owned land for agricultural use and allowing them to increase their shares in agricultural corporations with a cap of up to 50%. This has of course expanded the pool of resources that corporations can draw from to grow, yet there is little evidence as of yet that suggests these reforms have been all that effective.
That being said, some of the biggest advantages of these agricultural corporations are to the direct benefit of the farmers involved. By coming together to form these corporations, farmers can then create partnerships with local restaurants, supermarkets, and even convenience store chains to sell their products directly. Another benefit to the farmers, and to the local communities, is that the government forces these corporations to involve local governing bodies in the operating decisions of their farms and the buying, selling, and leasing of farmland. This keeps the agricultural industry locally focused and locally run.
Over the last decade, non-agricultural companies investing in agricultural land and creating agricultural corporations has seen some incredible growth. One reason for this might seem counterintuitive, but due to the fact that there is so much land, about 4.1 million hectares as of 2016, that is in disuse and of unknown ownership throughout Japan, there are incentives for local governments and non-industry entities to invest in restoring these areas.
Hurdles and hope
An issue facing these efforts, however, are the strict landownership and land sale laws surrounding agricultural land and these abandoned plots with no clear ownership. There are specific requirements that need to be met by non-agricultural organizations in order to purchase agricultural land, or land intended for agricultural use, and this isn’t to mention the lengthy process of determining ownership of abandoned plots and working with local governments to purchase or lease them.
Another large hurdle is of course attracting a workforce. There are still large economic and lifestyle disadvantages to entering the agricultural industry. To give up the luxuries of living in a city to return to a mostly abandoned rural town to earn far less money doing manual labor, is a tall ask for most, to say the least. So, ultimately, despite the many efforts for reform and the increase in investment, change can’t be made without offering the new generation prospects of making a fair living. In fact, the number of young people entering the industry is still on a decline. It begs the question, who will feed with people when all the farmers are gone? A question that needs and answer very quickly.
Even still, whether they enter the farming sector or not, there are plenty of young people leaving their salaried positions in big cities to escape to the countryside and leave behind the disillusionment they faced from being overworked in stressful workplaces. The growth is slow, but it seems there is still hope, because as these families return, so do economic opportunities for communities to revitalize areas and bring about change and with it, growth.
Agricultural Corporations Help to Revitalize Japan’s Farm Sector.downloadreportbyfilename (usda.gov)
Japan’s Food Self-Sufficiency Rate Lowest in 25 Years.Japan's food self-sufficiency rate lowest in 25 years - Japan Today
Yakushiji, Katsuyuki. (2015, March 4). “Saving Japan’s Endangered Regions.”The Tokyo
Yamashita, Kazuhito. (2008a, December 16). “The Issues in the Farmland System.”The Tokyo
Foundation for Policy Research, 16 Dec. 2008,www.tokyofoundation.org/en/articles/2008/theissues-in-the-farmland-system/
Yamashita, Kazuhito. (2008b, September 30). “The Perilous Decline of Japanese Agriculture.”