Japan’s countryside is a sad mess

Posted By on Aug 22, 2014 in Columns | 8 comments

The Japanese Countryside – a mutant creation worthy of a horror movie

I have just had the misfortune of spending the Obon holiday in a small village in Nagano. How can that be a misfortune, you ask? Surely the Japanese countryside is full of ruddy-cheeked tillers of the land, succulent local produce, verdant rice paddies, quaint wooden buildings, majestic mountains, neighbours leaning over the fences to swap gossip, etc etc.

But no, all these aspects were completely absent.

I found myself in a weird twilight zone which left me feeling I was in an unusually backward Tokyo suburb rather than the (literally!) mythical Japanese countryside.

We were staying with my Japanese grandmother-in-law, quite sprightly but deaf as a post. She is 91 and naturally completely uninterested in modernising her micro-farming operations. Her house once housed a large family but is now mainly a store-room of domestic debris. She lives alone. The bathroom and kitchen have not been modernized in 50 years. The house harks back to traditional ideas, but uses cheap, modern materials and seems to have been built in typical post-war haste.

Differences to a European homestead are immediately apparent. None of her landholding surrounds the homestead but is dotted around in inconvenient walking distance. Most of it is lent out to JA (Japan Agriculture, the monopolistic vampire of Japan’s rural areas), which pays her a small rent. She keeps one tiny plot for growing vegetables which she sends to her appreciative family in Tokyo.

My revulsion at the Japanese countryside was all the more acute after staying on my parents’ expensively and discretely upgraded 300-year old farm in Wales, in the beautiful Brecon Beacons.

In contrast to the meticulously and strictly zoned separation between town and country of the UK, Japan’s countryside is a frankly embarrassing patchwork of poorly-built houses, tiny fields interspaced with parking lots, convenience stores, pachinko parlours and modern malls usually housing a hot bath complex and restaurants.

Try as you might you will fail to find a genuine spiritual and social centre as you would get in every single UK village , namely the traditional village green, war-memorial, post office, the ancient pub,and the 1000-year old Norman church.

Instead in Japan you get a ‘rurban’ sprawl, a soggy mish-mash which is neither properly urban or rural, but combines the worst aspects of both. Oh, and goods prices are 10-20% higher than in Tokyo.

Japan’s appalling real estate standards are even more apparent in the countryside. There is no effort to build in a traditional style using traditional materials. The better houses are identical to what you would find in suburban Tokyo. But rotting buildings with corrugated iron roofs are frequent.

Very obviously, there is a massive problem with the zoning of land and this must be linked to rural corruption. In theory, it should be difficult to arbitrarily re-zone land. In the UK, the difference between rural and urban land is religiously observed, meaning you can drive for miles through a genuine countryside of fields, farms, castles and villages.

In Japan, zoning is decided by local leaders, in return for votes and most likely bribes too. The biggest windfall one of Japan’s increasingly fake farmers can achieve is to convert his rural land to urban land and flog it to 7-11 or Lawson, or a real estate development company. Local people defend this practice as ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’.

But with Japanese cities increasingly deemed unattractive, foreign tourists will be unlikely to return for the sake of Japan’s rural wonders.

Don’t get me wrong. Japan has loads of natural beauty – the problem is with the areas of human interaction, which amounts to despoliation.

Japan’s agricultural sector is truly a disaster. It is producing less and less rice; abandoned farm-land is rocketing; making a profit from rice-growing is almost impossible due to a rigged market; full-time farmers are a vanishing breed; Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is one of the lowest in the developed world; and the countryside is getting more lonely, old and exploited by the day.

Ironically, all this is the legacy of one of the most successful land reforms in history.

After the war, the US occupation authorities knew that Japanese militarism had deep roots in the depression-ravaged countryside. To avoid a repetition, they ordered a massive and amazingly non-violent transfer of land from the often absentee landlords to the actual farmers, who finally combined ownership and work.

The reformed farming sector soaked up huge numbers of returning soldiers, fed a starving nation, and created a rural consumer boom which fed straight into the success of Japan’s nascent manufacturing industry. Farm prices were kept artificially high to achieve this, but some extremely important goals were met, helping Japan on its way to accelerated economic development.

But today all those measures to keep farming yields high, keep employment up, create a satisfied and conservative rural base, and make Japan self-sufficient in food are either irrelevant or have lead to the opposite of what they were trying to achieve.

High-yields are welcome in a starving country, and employing returning soldiers is also a good idea.

But later one, when the immediate post-war challenges have been met, farms need to grow in size and merge to generate decent profitability. Even if this process means yields go down. Indeed, the larger the farm, the lower the yield because mechanization is never as skilful or high yielding as human labour. But it is a lot cheaper. Changing one’s farming approach to increase productivity and profits is especially important if you want to wind-down the subsidies and stimulate exports.

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.

But even reformers fail to mention an obvious alternative, one adopted in Europe. Yes, subsidies perversely pay farmers not to produce. But at least the government could make sure they use the money to make the countryside more beautiful.

On our farm in Wales, the farming authorities allows us to categorize the farm as organic. We get funds not to produce, true. But we mainly get funds for enriching the countryside. Farm inspectors test our land and water for any fertilizer or pesticide. They count the butterflies and listen to early-morning bird song. They check the fences are made of solid wood, not plastic or cheap steel. They test the river for fish and yellow foam and they examine the health of the wildlife, flowers and trees. As a result, walking in at least our little corner of the Welsh countryside is a wonderful treat, for hikers and residents alike.

Japan can either make a proper go of farming and change farming into an export-oriented agri-business. Or it can beautify its shabby, depressed villages. But it should move on from its current position where neither is rice grown nor the countryside protected.