New York Times
By Martin Fackler
March 29, 2009
SHONAI, Japan — This broad coastal plain near the Sea of Japan, blessed with abundant water and rich soil and checkered with rice paddies hued golden yellow in the early spring, is one of the country’s most fertile granaries. But there is an unmistakable malaise here.
The farmers who work the paddies are graying and dwindling in number. Abandoned, overgrown plots are a common sight. Because of how small their farms are and how far rice prices have fallen, many farmers find it impossible to make ends meet.
“Japanese agriculture has no money, no youth, no future,” said one farmer, Hitoshi Suzuki, 57, who stood on his 450-year-old family farm as an icy wind blew from the sea.
The troubles on the farm are emblematic of an overall feeling of paralysis gripping Japan, the world’s second-largest economy. Faced with mounting challenges from an aging population and chronic low growth, the nation has tried to preserve the status quo, in essence by burning through its vast accumulated wealth, rather than make tough changes, economists say.
“Japan’s rural crisis offers a glimpse of the entire nation’s future,” said Yasunari Ueno, an economist at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo.
To hear many farmers and agricultural experts tell it, rural Japan is fast approaching some sort of dead end, the result of depopulation, trade liberalization and depleted government coffers. They speak of the worst rural crisis since World War II. In Shonai, farmland prices have dropped as much as 70 percent in the past 15 years, and the number of farmers has shrunk by half since 1990.
Across Japan, production of rice, the traditional staple grain, has fallen 20 percent in a decade, raising alarms in a nation that now imports 61 percent of its food, according to the government’s Statistics Bureau.
Aging is seen as the biggest problem in rural areas, where, according to the Agriculture Ministry, 70 percent of Japan’s three million farmers are 60 or older. Since 2000, soaring deficits have forced Tokyo to halve spending on public works projects, which propped up rural economies, and plunging exports have now eliminated factory jobs on which many farming households depended for extra income.
While the current global financial crisis has added to the grimness, the root causes lie in Japan’s rural economic system of tiny, woefully inefficient family farms, which dates back to the end of World War II. But while many farmers and agriculture experts agree that this system is breaking down, change has been blocked by an array of vested interests and a fear of disturbing the established ways.
The question now is whether some sort of breaking point might soon be reached.
A change could be significant because rural voters form the base of a political pyramid at whose apex stands the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for more than half a century. The party is expected to face a tight race with the main opposition Democratic Party in general elections that must be called by early September.
In rural regions like Yamagata, the northern rice basket prefecture where Shonai is located, the signs remain mixed.
Takashi Kudo, the owner of a construction company here, said he remained a loyal supporter of Liberal Democratic lawmakers, who helped the local economy and his company with spending on local projects. Now, however, he said that his company’s sales have dropped by two-thirds over the last decade, forcing him to lay off half of his 23 employees.
Times are so tough that the local Shinto shrine has stopped hiring musicians for summer festivals, he said. Local residents feel abandoned by the party, leading to declining membership in election support groups, he said. But residents are not embracing the opposition, which he said suffered from the same lack of direction as the governing party.
“The reaction has been political disillusionment, not political revolt,” said Mr. Kudo, 45, sitting in his office below a photograph of his district’s Liberal Democratic lawmaker, Koichi Kato.
Still, there are growing calls here to give the Democrats a try. In January, a little-known school board member who ran as the opposition candidate unseated the incumbent Liberal Democrat to become governor of Yamagata, which had been firmly Liberal Democratic for generations.
“There is a feeling that the L.D.P. is growing out of touch with real rural problems,” said Takeshi Hosono, a director at Shogin Future-Sight Institute, a market research company based in the city of Yamagata.
Many Yamagata residents feel the party has gone too far in liberalizing trade and cutting public spending, Mr. Hosono said, reflecting resentment that cities like Tokyo have prospered in recent years while rural areas waned.
Others say they feel the Liberal Democrats have not gone far enough in reforms, complaining that the party and local groups that support it have been blocking local farmers from making big improvements that challenge the status quo.
One of those innovators is Kazushi Saito, a rice and pig farmer who six years ago took on one of rural Japan’s most powerful institutions, the national agricultural cooperative, by trying to establish his own, smaller, alternative co-op. He signed up 120 other farmers disgruntled with the national cooperative, which they said they felt only tried to sell them expensive machinery and fertilizer.
But when he sought to register his new co-op, as allowed by law, the prefectural agricultural officials refused to do the paperwork, effectively killing the plan, he said.
“Vested interests are running Japanese agriculture into a wall,” Mr. Saito, 52, said.
Mr. Saito and other farmers said the government also throws up barriers against the most obvious remedy to agriculture’s problems, the creation of larger, more efficient farms. The average Japanese commercial farm is now just 4.6 acres, compared with about 440 acres for the average American farm.
While the government says that such consolidation is needed, Mr. Saito and others say their efforts to accumulate land are hindered by price supports on farmland, which were intended to protect the value of small farmers’ assets but which make the property too expensive to buy. Limits on rice production, also intended to help small farmers by propping up rice prices, make it difficult to expand production, many farmers say.
Even with price supports, moreover, an easing of import restrictions and a decline in demand related to Japan’s changing eating habits have driven down rice prices, hurting farms of all sizes. This has fed rising anger not only with the Liberal Democrats but also with Japan’s powerful ministries, which have traditionally guided this nation but now seem unable to lead the way out of the morass.
“The postwar era of depending on Tokyo is clearly over,” said Shonai’s mayor, Maki Harada.
Mr. Suzuki, with the 450-year-old family farm, has quadrupled the land he tills to 40 acres, most of it rented from retired farmers. But inflated land prices, restrictions on rice production and the high cost of Japan’s highly mechanized farming have simply meant that his bigger farm loses more money than neighboring smaller ones, he said.
“Agriculture could resuscitate local economies, if it were made healthy again,” said Masayoshi Honma, a professor of agriculture at the University of Tokyo. “Without reform, it will just decline to death.”