The Zombification of Japanese FarmingPolitics Economy
Over the past few years we have seen a peculiar sort of farming fad in Japan, with the domestic agricultural sector becoming the target of fulsome praise. Bookstores have whole sections devoted to books on upbeat topics like “profitable farming” and “miraculous farming,” and movies about farming are being produced and screened in theaters.
What is actually happening in the field, however, is what one might call the “zombification” of Japanese agriculture. An increasing number of our farmers lack cultivation skills, do not operate in good harmony with the environment, and can only produce low-quality crops. They may look good, equipped with full sets of farming machinery, boasting ties with commercial and industrial firms, and throwing around terms like “organic farming,” but the reality does not match these fine appearances. And ironically, the government’s attempts at agricultural reform are exacerbating the process of zombification. In this article I will discuss the alarming decline in Japanese agriculture and the structural problems in Japanese society that underlie this distressing trend.
The Steady Decline in Cultivation Skills
In recent years there has been a wave of proposals concerning agriculture from various quarters. But prominent among them are recommendations that ignore the fundamental differences between agriculture and manufacturing, as seen in the calls for large-scale farming. In manufacturing, production relies on the artificial combustion of fuels like oil as the main source of energy, and it is carried out in the artificially controlled environment of factories. So it is effective to standardize the production process using manuals and to enlarge the scale of operation so as to make optimal use of equipment. In agriculture, by contrast, the main source of energy is the sunlight that falls in roughly even amounts on each unit of area, and the production is carried out in a natural environment—farmland that is constantly subject to variations in climate and ground conditions. So increasing the scale of operation will not necessarily lead to higher efficiency. In fact, many large-scale farms around the country are ailing financially. Economies of scale apply in the case of environment-plundering and energy-intensive types of agriculture. But those are New World styles of farming; they are not advantageous in Japan.
In order to discuss farming realistically, we must recognize its basic nature. Farming means growing plants to serve as food. But farmers do not actually “grow” plants. It is the plants themselves that do the growing, by photosynthesis. All the farmer can do is to create conditions that will promote their growth. The role might be compared to that of elementary school teachers watching over their pupils’ development. Rigid, uniform education is liable to cause children to wither intellectually and become violent. Similarly, overly standardized agriculture cannot adapt to the variations in the natural environment and is likely to cause crop quality to deteriorate. Manufacturing is a world of technology, relying on rigorous standardization of the production process. Farming, by contrast, is a world of skills, which cannot be reduced to rules in a manual.
During Japan’s post–World War II period of rapid economic growth, farmers with high levels of cultivation skills could be found all around the country. They were quite distinct from farmers of the traditional mold, who relied on personal experience and grew crops mainly just to feed themselves and their families. Advances in biochemistry and other fields produced a string of new crop strains, accompanied by the development of new farming equipment. Meanwhile, improvements in transportation and communication made it possible for farmers even in remote areas to sell their crops to city dwellers. But to do so, they needed to provide products matching their urban customers’ demands. Coping with these dramatic changes required farmers to have a high level of scientific knowledge and thinking ability. And by combining their knowledge with the results of their trial-and-error experiences over the years, farmers of the new type built up their cultivation skills.
Farmers with advanced cultivation skills “communicate” with their plants and flexibly adjust their growing methods. Their skills are like those of an artisan. And they can hold costs down rigorously thanks to their ability to catch, for example, precisely when insect eggs will hatch, thereby minimizing the job of protecting their crops from infestation (sometimes an application of hot water is all that is required). This type of farming is in harmony with the environment and good at coping with variations in climate. It helps plants stay healthy as they grow and produces crops of high nutritional value.
Unfortunately the cultivation skills of Japanese farmers are steadily declining. There are three reasons for this: The first is the breakdown of order in the use of farmland. Japanese farming communities use shared irrigation systems, and if even a small minority of the farmers make improper use of the water, all the farms in the community suffer. Also, if the plants even on a fraction of the area become infested or diseased, the harm quickly spreads. In recent years the loopholes in farmland regulation have been getting bigger, and more and more farmland is being held for purposes other than farming, such as for tax savings and for prospective use as housing sites. There has also been a rise in the number of people who take up farming without being adequately prepared and who fail to observe the rules for water use. Both the nonfarming landowners and the poorly prepared new farmers are acting as drags on local farming communities.
The second reason for the decline in cultivation skills is the ballooning size and increasing complexity of the system of agricultural subsidies. A setup that makes it more profitable for farmers to draw handouts from the government than to grow good crops is bound to discourage them from polishing their farming skills.
Third is consumers’ reliance on commercial messages. People are doing less cooking at home, and they have become less able to tell good produce from bad. As a result, they tend to rely on labels like “organic” when deciding what to buy. Organic farming that is not accompanied by good cultivation skills is bad for the environment and results in low-quality crops. But farmers are in a situation where it is more profitable for them to hone their advertising abilities than to improve their cultivation skills.
Fantasy Accelerates the Debilitation of Farming
Japanese agriculture is in serious trouble as a result of the declining level of cultivation skills. But people are averting their gaze from this reality. Instead, as I noted at the beginning of this article, the nation has become infatuated with farming. Even the business world is enthusiastically embracing the fantasy of farming. We have seen a string of proposals suggesting that Japanese agriculture can achieve great success through large-scale operations, deregulation to allow business corporations to enter the field, and closer links with commerce and industry. And increasing numbers of people from business circles are asking to visit high-tech greenhouses using artificial light and hydroponics.
It was in the second half of the 2000s that Japanese agriculture started to become the target of this sort of infatuation. This coincided with the period when it became clear to all that Japanese commerce and industry were at an impasse. In the past, Japanese businesses achieved rapid growth and won rave reviews from around the world. But with the bursting of the bubble at the beginning of the 1990s, the economy entered a period of prolonged stagnation. After the start of the new millennium, people placed their hopes in Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō’s program of deregulation and reform, but this led to excessive competition and other problems that remained when Koizumi stepped down in 2006. Meanwhile, other countries in East Asia started to overwhelm the Japanese commercial-industrial sector, and in 2010 China’s gross domestic product surpassed Japan’s, making that country number two in the global economic rankings. We should see the farming fad as the outgrowth of escapism mixed with frustration among people seeking to find some field, any field, in which Japan could boast its prowess.
Farm products, unlike manufactured products, do not lend themselves to standardization, and they are costly to transport. So even when domestic farming loses its competitive strength, it does not rapidly lose its market to imported products. China and other Asian countries have been making great advances in the competitiveness of their agricultural sectors, but here in Japan this development is hard to observe. Back in the 1930s Japanese people fell for an idealized vision of Manchuria (northeastern China) as Japan’s promised land without knowing the facts about the situation there. Today, in a similar fashion, people have become infatuated with an idealized vision of Japan’s domestic farming without knowing—and perhaps without even wanting to know—the facts about this sector.
Today’s Japanese commercial-industrial sector has lost confidence in its ability to compete internationally and—surprising though it may seem—is not enthusiastic about trade liberalization. Companies that rely on domestic demand are now eagerly seeking to get involved in agriculture and form ties with farmers in order to find new jobs for employees made redundant by the slump in their main lines of business. Their hastily formed agribusiness operations tend to fare poorly, but they cling to them, seeking subsidies on various pretexts. The commercial-industrial sector and farming sector have turned into “birds of a feather.” Local chambers of commerce and industry now prominently display posters opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact and calling for closer ties with agriculture. Looking around their offices, one might even mistake them for agricultural cooperatives.
Even people with no previous farming experience can buy the necessary equipment and grow what will pass for crops, as long as they do not worry about quality or the burden on the environment. And at least over the short term they can manage to keep going by drawing subsidies, inviting consumers to events they organize, using food processing to give their products faddish flavors, and dressing them up with catchy advertising copy at the retail stage. But this process only accelerates the deterioration of farmers’ cultivation skills, making Japanese agriculture weaker at its core.
Escapist Government Policy
For politicians, the farming fad is a welcome phenomenon. By idealizing agriculture and calling for agricultural reform, they are able to win votes from independent urban voters, to whom the word “reform” has an attractive ring. Meanwhile, corporations that have become involved in agribusiness are liable to be running major deficits; doing them a favor by providing subsidies in the name of promoting large-scale farming and links between agriculture and the commercial-industrial sector offers politicians a good way of winning the corporate backing they seek so as to raise campaign funds and garnering votes from organized groups.
So politicians, business leaders, farmers, and consumers are all caught up in the farming fad, which is serving as a temporary palliative. This is a microcosm of the escapism of today’s Japanese society.
Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has identified the promotion of agriculture as one of the pillars of his new growth strategy, and he has come out with two major policy initiatives in this connection: (1) abolition of the paddy acreage reduction (rice production adjustment) system and (2) creation of intermediary institutions for farmland management (agricultural land banks). But the acreage reduction program was effectively abolished 10 years ago. And systems functioning like agricultural land banks have been in existence for more than 40 years, allowing motivated farmers to lease land belonging to people who have stopped farming and plots that have been left untended. The government will probably just make a show of implementing these two initiatives by fiddling with the existing legal provisions. This sort of reformist pose is enough to keep urban residents going along with the farming fad without comparing the “reformed” systems to the existing setups.
The process of putting on a show of agricultural policy reform will produce even greater complexity in the system of subsidies and the legal provisions for agriculture. It is also worrisome that the Abe administration is proposing to expand subsidies directed at lower-grade rice for animal feed and to relax the rules against use of farmland by nonfarmers. Such moves will only encourage the entry into farming of people and businesses that lack cultivation skills (and are thus liable to have a negative impact on neighboring farmers), do not operate in harmony with the natural environment, and can only turn out low-quality crops. Japanese farming is heading down a path where unqualified farmers grow what will pass for crops, relying on subsidies to break even and using food-processing wizardry and clever advertising to sell their products.
Gōdo Yoshihisa. Shūnō sanka ga wakamono o kowasu (The Paean to Farming Jobs Will Ruin Young People). Neppū, September 2013.
———. Nihon nōgyō e no tadashii zetsubōhō (The Right Way to Despair of Japanese Agriculture). Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2012.
———. Escape to Dreamland—Manchuria in the Past, Farming Today. Japan in Their Own Words (English-Speaking Union of Japan), December 14, 2011.
———. Japan’s Commercial-Industrial Sector Poses Greater Obstacle to Trade Liberalization than the Agricultural Sector. Japan in Their Own Words, September 7, 2011.
———. Realistic Land Survey Must Be the Basis of Agricultural Policy Reform. Japan in Their Own Words, June 30, 2011.
(Originally published in Japanese on January 24, 2014. Title photo: Prime Minister Abe Shinzō operates a rice-planting machine during a visit to an agricultural corporation in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on May 12, 2013. Photo by Jiji.)