May 24, 2012

Down on the farm

RyƓ and Kuwada find themselves back in present-day Kudoyama (population: 4,827). Towns like this survive on the tourist trade, or as sleeper communities within commuting distance of larger cities like Osaka, Nara, and Wakayama.

Japan's farm-based rural communities are in far more dire straits.

The 1947 land reforms during the Occupation strengthened the agricultural sector and quashed a nascent communist movement by turning hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers into land owners and small businessmen. But it has since become an economic albatross.

The Japanese government shovels out farm subsidies 100 times (on a per capita basis) as generous as the U.S. government, forcing consumers to pay ten times the world market price for rice alone. Despite this largess, observes Kazuhito Yamashita, over the past 50 years,

the share of agricultural output in gross domestic product dropped from 9 percent to 1 percent, the food self-sufficiency ratio from 79 percent to 41 percent, and agricultural land from 6.09 million hectares to 4.63 million hectares.

And it's not keeping 'em down on the farm either. As Amy Chavez puts it,

In all my years living in Japan's countryside, I've never seen any significant return to the rice fields. Most people are lucky to make it back to their ancestral home once a year for O-bon on a 300 kph bullet train.

Japan needs another land reform movement as profound as the one in 1947. The current system encourages enormous inefficiencies and is ruinously expensive. Unfortunately, as in the United States (to saying nothing of Europe), no politician dares to antagonize that voting block.

So it's not going to get fixed it until it's thoroughly broken and we're all broke.

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