MIHARU, Japan, Nov.
7, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- James Brooke, NY Times:
When the motorcade of earnest agricultural promotion agents
rolled up the other morning to his father's rice paddy, Shunseki
Ouchi sensed a lecture on the virtues of farming. Without
even a bow, Mr. Ouchi, a 22-year-old college student, ran
Here in the heart of what was once a Japanese rice bowl,
young people are voting with their feet on farming. Since
1980, the number of people in this town of 20,000 making most
of their money from farming has dropped 56 percent, to 1,655.
In the 15- to 59-year age group, the drop has been more precipitous:
83 percent, to 455. The only segment that has grown is of
farmers over 70, currently 633.
On Sunday, Japanese voters are expected to return to power
the Liberal Democrats, the politicians who over the last half-century
have irrigated Japan's farm sector with subsidies and kept
city food prices high through tariffs.
But judging by the advancing age of farmers in this town
120 miles north of Tokyo, and by the advance of scrub forest
into abandoned farmland, the Liberal Democrats are playing
a waiting game, waiting for the grim reaper gradually to thin
the ranks of Japan's politically influential farmers.
"Young people dislike farming," Akiyoshi Ouchi,
50, said, looking a little sheepish about his son's abrupt
flight. Speaking under the gaze of Sidek Bin Saadon, his 23-year-old
"agricultural trainee" from Malaysia, Mr. Ouchi
said that of the 73 farm households in his district, only
four other families lived solely from farming.
The wait for a policy shift in Tokyo may not be long.
Later in the month, Japanese and Mexican negotiators are
to resume talks on a free trade pact. Last month, Mexico's
president, Vicente Fox, left Tokyo empty-handed after Japanese
negotiators refused to allow measures that would harm pig
farmers and orange juice producers. But Japan's leading business
group, the Keidanren, calculates that Japanese companies lose
$3.6 billion each year that passes without a bilateral free
The announcement that Japan would resume talks with Mexico
shortly after the election indicates that Japan intends to
keep its promises to start free trade talks early next year
with South Korea and Thailand, both major rice producers.
Despite billions of dollars in subsidies and protective rice
tariffs as high as 490 percent, young rural dwellers do not
think the government will maintain today's economic fantasyland
in which a farmer can earn $50,000 a year from three acres.
Contributing to the bleak economics of rice farming, last
summer's cool and rainy weather is making this fall's rice
crop Japan's worst in a decade.
"We knew changes would come, so we decided that he would
work outside," Kazuya Furukawa, a 56-year-old rice farmer,
said gesturing to Tatsuya, his 34-year-old son, who has a
civil service job.
Across the archipelago, the number of people working full
time in farming has dropped steadily, to about 2.8 million
today, down from 3.9 million in 1980, and from 12 million
Here in the Fukushima prefecture, which once had Japan's
largest tobacco crop and its second-largest production of
silkworms, it is easy to spot some of the region's 40,000
acres of recently abandoned farmland.
In the folds of the hills here, cattails grow in abandoned,
300-year-old rice paddies. On hillsides, weeds grow in old
tobacco patches. Mulberry orchards have been left to grow
wild, victims of a silkworm business that collapsed in face
of low-priced Chinese competition.
"The youngest farmer I know around here is 45,"
said Yoshio Kanomata, 62, who drives a taxi to make ends meet.
His four children have migrated into local white-collar jobs.
At this year's harvest time for the family tobacco crop, his
wife, Sueko, hired three neighbors: two 70-year-old women
and a 75-year-old man.
With government support for tobacco being phased out, the
value of tobacco produced in this town has dropped 75 percent
since 1975, the mulberry leaf production has been wiped out,
and the production of rice, the untouchable of Japanese farm
policy, has dropped by a third. The only growth has been in
truck farming as production of vegetables has doubled, largely
for local market.
"We are going back to the old saying: in order to keep
healthy you should eat food grown from the area surrounded
by four li," said Shigeru Fukaya, the town employee charged
with promoting agriculture, using a local measurement. "You
won't get sick if you only eat crops from a four-kilometer-by-four-
While Japanese consumers like locally grown fresh food, they
no longer seem swayed by scare campaigns on imported rice.
"American rice is not that much different," Mr.
Furukawa, a 12th-generation rice farmer, said in his farmhouse,
where the family shrine room includes a portrait of Emperor
Hirohito, Japan's wartime leader. "I cook in the winter
at the ski area near here. I have used it. I don't think there
is a difference."
While Japan limits its rice imports to 770,000 tons, less
than 10 percent of its needs, many city dwellers say they
would prefer cheap American rice to expensive domestic rice.
At the same time, many Japanese are concerned that the country
now relies on imports to cover 60 percent of its food needs,
the highest ratio among major nations in the world.
"Japan is the world's largest agricultural importer
country," Yoshiyuki Kamei, Japan's agriculture minister,
said in a recent briefing for foreign reporters. Pegging imports
at around $35 billion year, he added: "Even compared
to Germany, which ranks second, Japanese net food imports
are more than double Germany's imports."
Despite the general hand-wringing over agriculture in Japan,
farming is in retreat. In recent years, farmers have started
to battle a new threat: wild boars rooting up their fields.
"The increase of boars is because of the abandonment
of farmland," Mr. Fukaya said. "As far as agriculture
is concerned, this is a dropout town."