Another period of drastic change
came following World War II. During the war, agricultural
production had declined by half and the people were left to
starve. Imperative in the post-war period was to help the
country’s farms back up; beyond feeding the hungry,
their food would fuel the rest of the nation to raise the
Reluctant government leaders began reforming the predominant
system of tenant farming, but occupying forces found their
changes unsatisfactory. In 1946, the Supreme Commander for
Allied Powers, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, enacted a reform
bill that forced landlords to sell to their renters all the
property they couldn’t farm themselves—anything
over approximately 7 acres.
For all its social value, the act did nothing to increase
the number of farmers or the acreage in production. The country
was still starving. The government tried clearing land and
selling it with incentives to encourage new farmers. But with
land so dear to begin with, the new cultivation happened in
places like far-off Hokkaido and so didn’t entice newcomers.
The government encouraged the incorporation of animal power,
but still, land was too dear to grow feed or serve as pasture.
They fixed rice prices, but because there were still shortages
farmers turned and sold their crops on the black market.
What did galvanize farmers to produce more was the new sense
of ownership that came with the end of the tenant system.
Now that they could make their own decisions, income beyond
wages became a possibility. But while the landlords had enough
land and money to grow with respect for the future using practices
like fallow periods and non-yielding cover cropping, the independent
farmers used the land to its full immediate capacity.
Anyone reading NewFarm.org knows the perils of this approach.
Further, they know what serendipitous timing this must have
been for the introduction of agricultural chemicals. Fertilizers
took the place of cover crops, allowing another harvest to
come off the ground each year. Herbicides eliminated time-consuming
weed control, and pesticides took care of the bugs that flourished
in the newly disrupted environment. Thus began the rapid depletion
of what little workable soil Japan had to begin with, a catastrophe
that today is only beginning to be remedied.
1950 — Present
In the post-War period Japan learned that it is one thing
to celebrate austerity behind closed doors, but another entirely
when participating in the world market. Becoming part of the
international community allowed the country to import what
it had once supplied for itself and to export desire for all
the world’s offerings.
In 1951, with economy and agriculture still damaged, the
nation signed the United States-Japan Security Treaty. The
greatest civil objection was over the indefinite presence
of American military bases, which would essentially replace
Japan’s own self-defense. But the treaty was also significant
agriculturally. As part of the exchange Japan agreed to discontinue
its campaign to increase farm production and instead import
the difference from the Midwest. It would in turn be rewarded
with a reliable market for its manufactured goods.
By 1985, Japan was still largely self-sufficient in rice
and produce, though it relied almost entirely on the United
States for wheat and animal feed. After signing the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in 1993, the country lost
its final protection against a world whose land is cheaper
and more plentiful. It has officially
entered into the tricky world of subsidizing grain production
and defending their tariffs before world agencies, all just
to keep their farmers from drowning in the flood of imported
Meanwhile, the move from country to city has beset Japan
like so many other developed countries. While farmers in the
United States responded to urbanization by pushing farther
afield, Japan’s limited land made it a decision of either/or.
And farming has largely lost, either by disappearing altogether,
moving to the most marginal lands, or filling in the spaces
where nothing has been built—yet.
This infatuation with aesthetics
not only requires pesticides,
it condones them by default
The country’s agricultural roots are still apparent
even within urbanity, whether in the ubiquitous gardens fresh
with pea vines in April or in the odd rice fields that pop
up inside Osaka city limits. Further, mechanization has allowed
for a rise in part-time farming. Now every May, on the biggest
holiday weekend of the year, the fields around Kyoto buzz
with secretaries and factory workers seizing the break time
to plant that year’s rice seedlings.
But the reality is that growing food is a part of fewer and
fewer people’s lives. Each new generation loses touch
with the origins of what it eats—again, common in many
developed countries, but the effect has been profound within
Japan’s particular culinary culture. What began as a
celebration of nature’s bounty has been abstracted,
sometimes to the point of fetish.
Too often now appreciation of food’s beauty has been
separated from the reverence it once represented. The new
ideal is cosmetic perfection. It is the delicate, hundred-dollar
melons wrapped in mesh foam and perched in a locked and softly
lit store window as if they were gems. But it is also every
piece of fruit in the supermarket, each one polished and laid
on a perfect diagonal axis. Today, even rice is priced in
part by its appearance. Of course this infatuation with aesthetics
not only requires pesticides, it condones them by default.
As the abstract sensual experience of food becomes top priority,
the process of growing it becomes a means rather than an end.
And so the farmers pour it on—literally, in some cases.
Japan has 0.3 percent of the world’s farmland, and uses
12 percent of its agricultural chemicals, a grand total six
times heavier than in the United States. Because farms are
mostly small and operated by their owner’s own hands,
the farmers are the ones spraying the average 70 pounds per
acre, and dying at a shocking rate of cancer and other pesticide-related
illnesses. Looking on the bright side, it is a situation ripe
for organic farming.
Actually, the idea of farming without pesticides had germinated
before chemical use was rampant in Japan. Innovators such
as Mokichi Okada and Masanobu Fukuoka were developing methods
in the 1930s and ‘40s. But as in the U.S., organic food
didn’t surface as a product until the 1970s. The course
it took from there, quite opposite from in America, has handicapped
The hippies in California were cultivating their food movement
so far on the fringe that nobody even knew about it, but in
Japan organic food appeared on the scene as a popular, even
mainstream trend. Though the American way seemed like a curse
at the time, those farmers had the slow growth that allowed
them to define their mission. Their product was never more
powerful than the movement itself. But in Japan “organic”
was a label before it was a clear-cut method. Wooed by packaging
that promised the ever-ambiguous “natural” life,
consumers bought an abstract idea of health rather than a
specific means of production.
Wooed by packaging that
promised the ever-ambiguous “natural” life, consumers
bought an abstract idea of health rather than a
specific means of production.
Popularity and profit naturally garnered influence, but that
was seized by the distributors, manufacturers, and their marketing
agents—not the farmers who had incubated the vision.
The research scientists were predictably swayed to the most
powerful side, the one that wanted more “organic”
products by any means. Before long the definition of organic
agriculture had been drastically compromised. Studies showing
the achievements of organics were coming from the United States
and elsewhere, but the researchers translated them with a
twist: California, for instance, is a dry land. They might
be able to farm without chemicals there, but in Japan’s
wet climate, low levels of pesticides and fertilizers were
necessary even for organic farming.
As non-organic farmers saw that they didn’t actually
have to give up their chemicals to get the label, they went
“organic” too. So when the purists made the argument
that this method should by definition mean free of chemicals,
everyone, including their fellow growers, told them they were
flat out wrong.
Salvation came in oddly apocalyptic clothes. There was the
Sarin attack in 1995, then the reality behind the Kyoto Protocol
in 1997, then the Tokaimura uranium plant accident in 1999.
Tokyo, the country’s biggest consumer base, had reality
driven home with several local chemical-related disasters,
and suddenly environmental health became a major concern throughout
the country. After two decades of buying organic products
in the supermarket, concerned consumers finally realized the
danger of agricultural chemicals.
Japan now has national standards for organic certification,
but the system remains plagued by its past. Vestiges of the
industry from 20 years ago now promote “low-input”
food, and many consumers feel safe enough knowing their food
has just less and fewer pesticides. Even those who do buy
certified organic food can’t be sure of its purity,
as the national standards are filled with loopholes that allow
for pesticides and the transfer of GE-products and pharmaceuticals
into the food stream.
While the paths have been different, even opposite, the forefront
of Japan’s organic movement now parallels that in America.
Rather than look to large certification agencies to legitimize
their practice, farmers and consumers are building relationships
of trust that come from personal interaction. The method of
choice is the CSA program, and many are not even certified
organic—they don’t need to be. After years of
ambiguity and deception, consumers are recognizing that the
most reliable seal is that of a handshake.
Go to an organic farm in Japan and it will probably be similar
to its parallel in the States. Maybe the place will be smaller
(and tidier), but they will follow the same methods of cover
cropping and composting, and strive for food that looks, tastes,
and feels the best it can.
Call a Natural Agriculture farm “organic” and
you’ll quickly be corrected. To the farmer, it’s
as inaccurate as calling his land conventional. They might
look similar in using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers,
or in promoting the health of the whole farm rather than cranking
out a product, but the motivation and the technique are fundamentally