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Go Farm, Young Man! – How Farming in Japan is Changing

For a country that identifies strongly as being historically agricultural people, the landscape of Japan's agricultural sector is bleak, and has been for some time. Simply put, the workforce is rapidly aging and there aren't nearly enough successors. The price of rice has gone down, and structural reform is unlikely with the powerful coop organization Nokyo (農協) and whatever political party is in power. The Tokyo Foundation offers statistics in a report, ominously but aptly titled ‘The Perilous Decline of Japanese Agriculture‘. It starts, of course, with everyone's favorite nogyo (農業 / agriculture) statistic – ‘Japan's food self-sufficiency ratio has dropped below 40%’.

However, the circumstances surrounding agriculture are changing. Farming is undergoing a makeover for better or worse, as covered by Scilla Alecci in ‘Japan: Agriculture the latest trend among celebrities‘. This follow-up post highlights some aspects of that change in an attempt to explore its scope.

Reporting for Duty by flickr user megabn

Reporting for Duty by flickr user megabn

Farming and Food Safety

Growing concern for food safety is one of the factors that have contributed to this change in the way of thinking. The blog ‘What Japan Thinks’ reported last year that ‘food safety worries five in six Japanese‘:

Q2: Which of the following do you strive to do regarding your eating habits ? (Sample size=1,089, multiple answer)

  • Buy Japanese products as much as possible 69%
  • Pay attention to the date of manufacture, use-by date, best before date, etc 66%
  • Buy products with as few additives as possible 51%
  • Limit use of prepared foods 25%
  • Limit eating out 16%
  • Other 3%
  • Nothing in particular 6%

Many consumers don't mind paying extra to ensure that their food is ‘safe’, especially in the wake of an incident in 2008 when dozens were poisoned by frozen dumplings imported from China. In a typical example, Tamagomama lists some reminders in a blog post advising expectant mothers:

多少高くても「安全でいい食品」を買いましょうね。
できれば「生産者」の顔が見えるモノにしてください。
輸入品は避けましょう。
中国に限らずアメリカなどの食品も。
国産で皆さんの近くでとれたモノがいいです。
生産者の顔がわかるものがベストです。
家族の命をまもるためにも、他人が守ってくれるのではなく、我が身と家族は自分で守りましょう。

Even if it costs a little bit more, please buy ‘good, safe food’. If possible, it should be food where you can tell who produced it. Stay away from imported food, not just Chinese but also American food. Try to choose food that was produced nearby or in Japan. It's best if you can tell who produced it. You are the one to protect the lives of your family – don't rely on others to do it for you.

Farming and Unemployment

With the economy in steep decline, the government is looking to connect increased agricultural employment as one answer to rising unemployment, especially for temp workers with cancelled contracts.

Nina Fallenbaum reported on her participation in a pilot agriculture-experience program:

Here’s the very simple idea: send 18 to 40-year-old city slickers to rural communities for a free five-day trip to learn farming, meet local people, and perhaps be tempted to adopt that way of life for themselves. Administrated by an environmental nonprofit group, a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture paid our food, bullet train fare, lodging — everything (and I’m not even a citizen!). Seems extravagant, but compared to the amount of money spent on recent bank bailouts it’s a very cheap form of stimulus — and benefits rural areas, young people, and the agricultural sector simultaneously.

Farming and the Internet

Here are some cases of people harnessing the power of the Internet.

Yasai8313, who produces rare vegetables, uses the Internet to
cultivate sales channels [ja]. Tomato farmer Shinichi Soga succeeded in connecting the popularity of his blog directly to sales, as covered by the Japan Times in ‘Younger farmers blogging their way to success‘. Seebit, a company that produces video content for the Web, runs a website that sells rice. They offer footage from an on-site Web camera so that people can see how the rice is growing. There's a social networking site for all people related to nogyo, Boku-nou (Our Agriculture), which also enables people to buy and sell farming equipment.

Online learning is available as well. Toshihide Muraoka introduced one such example on his blog:

秋田県農業研修センターが運営する「インターネットアグリスクール」が人気を集めています。インターネットを利用して、農業のやり方や秋田県の自然の知識を学ぶことができます。2001年に開始して以降、東京、愛知、長崎など全国から約200人が受講し、毎年、定員(30人)はほぼ満員状態。スクールを通じて農業の魅力に引かれ、これまでに9人の受講生が県内で農業を始めています。

‘Internet Agri School’, run by the Akita Prefecture Agricultural Training Center, is gaining popularity. Students can learn about farming and gain knowledge about the nature of Akita Prefecture through the Internet. Since its establishment in 2001, about 200 people from all over Japan, including Tokyo, Aichi, and Nagasaki, have studied at the school. Each year, the capacity (30 students) is almost always full. Nine students, drawn in by the appeal of agriculture through the school, have started farming in Akita Prefecture.

Farming and Other Industries

Companies and organizations in industries unrelated to farming are re-thinking their relationship with agriculture. In one example, marketer and blogger happy-kernel commented on the news that the Kakegawa City Amateur Sports Association in Shizuoka Prefecture is starting an agricultural farm business.

野菜嫌いな子どもたちに、野菜作りを手伝わせることで野菜嫌いがなくなったり、観察力が高まるという指摘もあるように、中年以降、お腹周りが気になり始めた運動不足の肉好きの人たちにとっては、運動を兼ねた野菜中心食へ転換できるきっかけとなるかも知れないのだ。
とすれば、体育協会がこのような試みをすることにも、意味があるだろう。
何よりも参加者にとっては「新鮮・安心・安全な野菜」と「運動+健康」が手に入るのだ。
今後このようなアプローチの「健康作り」が、注目されていくのかも知れない。

In the same way that growing vegetables can help children overcome their dislike of vegetables and heighten observational skills, growing vegetables might also motivate meat-loving middle-aged grownups who don't get enough exercise to change their lifestyles to include exercise and vegetables! With this logic, it makes sense for the Association to give it a try. After all, the participants (of the agricultural farm) get ‘fresh and safe vegetables’ as well as ‘exercise and health’. Perhaps this approach to creating a healthy lifestyle will gain more prominence in the future.

In conclusion

Most Japanese farms are small and family-oriented, and the image of ojiichan and obaachan (grandpa and grandma) tending to their plot of land day in and day out, a typical setting in Japanese folklore, isn't that far from present reality. What will happen next? Where these trends will lead to is yet to be seen, but it's all part of one big and developing wave.

9 comments

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  • I actually was just translating something from the Kanagawa Agricultural Technology Center last week, so new agriculture is fresh in my mind!

    On that note, another way they’re trying to move things in a different direction is research into new crop breed and farming techniques – Kanagawa gives a lists of varieties and patents that they either have or are pending, and they’re really putting some effort into agricultural research.

    They also listed any number of times that they get a lot of interest from women, new graduates and U-turners/J-turners that want to start up businesses.

    There’s some interesting stuff if you look out there.

    • Thanks Darg,

      The amount of updated information available on the site is impressive.

      From the reading that I did for this article, it feels like research and outreach for agriculture is more active on a prefecture level rather than the national level. Kanagawa looks like a good example of that.

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  • Sebastian Heredia E.

    Interesting article

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