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 GNP.
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
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 food.
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.
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
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
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 its development.
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.
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
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 different.