Friday, 12 September 2014

Rural Depopulation, Japan Agriculture and the Failure of the Concrete Solution

Road through Japanese forest in fall, inoshishi visable
Wild boar foraging for acorns by the side of the road: There is so much beauty when the pachinko parlors are out of sight!
Japan's ailing agricultural sector, demographic crisis and the death of rural towns and villages are not new topics, but I hope you'll forgive me bringing them up when you read this brilliant and passionate recent post:

I thoroughly agree with the criticism of how zoning laws make the Japanese countryside look dingy and messy when it could be so beautiful. What really interested me, though, are these comments about Japan Agriculture:
Japan’s agriculture actually contributes zero to GDP because the Tokyo Foundation estimated that subsidies balance the economic wealth generated by the agricultural sector.

Tragically, real farmers, who want to grow rice profitably, find it hard to buy farmland. Greedy gerontocrats sit on their micro-plots in the hope of a re-zoning windfall, and because owning farm land exempts their family from inheritance tax. Real farmers also find it hard to lease land because lessors are worried by the strong protection the law grants leases. Furthermore, non-farm investors like public companies are officially barred from buying land. These measures are all remnants of well-meant US efforts post-1945 to prevent the rise of usury, rural exploitation, tenant farming and absentee landlords.

In short, the farm lobby is ironically destroying Japanese agriculture. Their perverse policy of using tariffs on rice of almost 800% and of being paid subsidies NOT to grow rice in order to keep prices high has been disastrous. Although Japanese rice is good quality and in demand abroad, a lack of concentration and scale is preventing Japanese rice farmers from doing for agriculture what Toyota and Panasonic did for manufacturing – take the world by storm with excellent export products.
Many moons ago I studied the influence of Japan Agriculture in the LDP (the relationship is under strain at the moment) and the way voting district allocation gives farming areas a disproportionate representation that leads to extraordinary pork barreling (more so in the '80s and '90s). It's not a new topic. I do have a different perspective on it having lived in a rural area though. Just the other day we were driving up into the mountains looking for a river swimming hole and we passed through a small group of old farm houses, of which only three or four looked like they were still inhabited. There was an old overgrown gas station and an ancient looking vending machine facing the dirt road. Yet just on the other side of this little settlement there was a brand new, two story concrete JA office resplendently modern-looking with a car-park that looked like it had until recently been a rice field. When riding the local bus a recorded voice gives information about each stop: "get off here to transfer to south-bound routes" and so on. Before the bus stop that is actually named Japan Agriculture, however, the voice over tells me that Japan agriculture is defending Japan's farming culture and giving us safe crops we can be proud of, before playing the JA jingle. I'm deadly serious.

Autumn rice fields~ hard work getting a shot without power lines or (much) concrete in sight

So, as young people abandon the unattractive (in many senses) countryside described in The Delphi Network article, how are those communities responding?
The tiny Japanese community of Mishima was desperate to reverse its shrinking population so officials came up with what they hoped would be a game-changing plan: free cows. Anyone willing to pack up and move to the remote southern village of 379 residents would get a no-cost calf or 500,000 yen in cash.
Mishima’s bovine brainwave has fallen well short of expectations, however.
“The program has been going for more than 20 years, and so far there has only been one person who took us up on the cow, and that was two decades ago,” village official Shingo Hidaka told AFP, adding the cash had only a handful of takers.
Japan needs to stop its population from cramming into the capital and create towns "overflowing with individuality and charm," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday at a roundtable on reinvigorating the countryside.
One unheralded Yubari success story is its rewilding, although no Japanese administrator would use that expression, which smacks to them of defeatism.
As humanity recedes, nature returns. By a railway station on Yubari’s somnolent branch line, a man who in a small act of public spiritedness is watering the bare concrete floors of the station building (“It keeps the dust down”) points to a Sika Deer doe in the nearby undergrowth. “Unusual to see one around here until just recently.” More deer vaulted in front of my car on Yubari’s main street the following day, forcing a swerve. Good use is being made of the return of nature, too: an abandoned elementary school has been turned into a nature academy, where big-city kids can kayak down the now pristine rivers and catch stag beetles.
 That last quote brings is very nicely to Alex Kerr, who wrote in Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan over a decade ago about the failure of the government response to dying villages and offers a different approach which he describes in this 2013 TEDxKyoto talk:

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  1. I was talking about my wife about this and she mentioned that she also heard of towns offering to pay college tuition for people who would return to their town after college and raise their family there. Sounds a little better than a cow. :)

    But to that point. I would think that schools would be a good place to invest if they want to draw young families. I know that was a major consideration for us here in the States when looking for a place to live. Though, maybe it's not the same in Japan?

    1. That does sound like a good idea, although I get the impression that most parents pay for college rather than the students themselves taking loans.
      Japan spends per capital some of the lowest amounts on education in the OECD, something that is immediately obvious when you walk into a public school. It's one of the many things that makes me face-palm, along with pregnancy and birth costs not being covered by national health insurance in a country that is literally dying out. Makes total sense, right?! An acquaintance who lives in a rural village was invited to participate in a local forum on "how can we encourage more young families to raise kids here" and the leader of the forum was a man in his 80s who said in his introductory speech that he hadn't really been involved in raising his kids and didn't remember much about what it was like when they were little ^_^;

  2. I have lived here for 14 years and, quite frankly, I think the Japanese are doomed as a people. The language is difficult, there are a number of rules for immigration and as a group they are too xenophobic. That's hard for me to say, because I genuinely like living here and find the Japanese to be a friendly group. Thankfully my kids have dual nationality and are bilingual. They will be able to leave if things start to go south.

    1. Well, Japan has faced numerous crises in the past and always come up swinging, but often in a form that was unrecognizable from what had gone before. I'm fascinated to see how society will change to accommodate such dramatically different demographics than have ever existed in the past. Even if one could wave a magic wand and correct all the reasons for the low birthrate tomorrow, it would still be too late to avert the medium term crisis and I agree that xenophobia will remain stronger that the survival instinct. It'll be an interesting century!

  3. Interesting post, Sophelia! The fact that Japanese agriculture contributes nothing to makes sense, but stunning to really think about it.


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