November 24, 2005

Japan: The Slow Life. Tune in, drop out, grow rice

Nearly half of the world's population now live in cities. A hundred years ago, only 14 percent were urban dwellers, 200 hundred years ago a mere 3 percent. It's a phenomenal change in world demographics, and it has transformed the way we work, our lifestyles, even our relationship to the food we consume.
Tokyo is an icon of the world's new megacities -- with an official population of 12 million, one out of every 10 Japanese lives there. The greater metropolitan area may contain as many as 26 million inhabitants. The result is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
Tokyo's "bright lights, big city" energy is a beacon to foreign tourists and Japanese alike. In fact, the lure of the city is so strong that it has depopulated many rural areas in Japan.
FRONTLINE/World reporter Jason Cohn, who has lived in Japan and speaks the language, understands the adrenaline rush of Tokyo, but prefers the quiet island of Shikoku, which is, in his words, "the spiritual center of the nation, the farm country." In this week's edition of Rough Cut, we present Cohn's window into this other Japan, outside Tokyo where people live "the slow life."
"Out there in the big city, the pace is really fast, and I found it really difficult to keep up," says Misa Ichikawa, who left Sapporo, another of Japan's hectic cities, to seek the quiet life in rural Shikoku. "I'm a country person, a country mouse, so I think it suits me."
Not that the slow life is an easy life. Ichikawa's husband, Sean Burgoine, another refugee from urban stress, has chosen to become a rice farmer, with all the backbreaking labor that requires.
"People will tell you straight out that you're mad," says Burgoine. "You can't make a living as a farmer these days."
And therein lies another twist to Cohn's unusual tale. Burgoine is a young Australian who has adopted Japan as his home and rice growing as his profession, even though his mentor, a successful Japanese farmer teases him, "Unfortunately, I think you are hopeless."
But the farmers of Shikoku have welcomed Burgoine and other college-educated refugees from the cities because they fear their world is vanishing. Government subsidies and protectionist tariffs guarantee that veteran Japanese rice farmers can prosper, but their sons and daughters are not following in their footsteps. They have left for the cities. The average age of the Japanese farmer is now 60. Some farms have been abandoned altogether, reclaimed by jungle. So if young people planting the terraced fields means that there's now a small back-to-the-earth movement bucking the trend, the older farmers are grateful, even if some of those young people are "crazy foreigners" like Burgoine.
He and his wife -- and their friends -- seem content to live and work in a quiet, green place, outside the fast lane. "I don't have great dreams of earning a lot of money," says Burgoine.
Stephen TalbotSeries Editor (8.30 minutes video)

Japan Farms: An Old Man's Game

Posted: 07-Nov-03
New York Times By James Brooke Nov. 7, 2003 MIHARU, Japan, Nov. 6 - When the motorcade of earnest agricultural promotion agents rolled up the other morning to his father's rice paddy, Shunseki Ouchi sensed a lecture on the virtues of farming. Without even a bow, Mr. Ouchi, a 22-year-old college student, ran away. Here in the heart of what was once a Japanese rice bowl, young people are voting with their feet on farming. Since 1980, the number of people in this town of 20,000 making most of their money from farming has dropped 56 percent, to 1,655. In the 15- to 59-year age group, the drop has been more precipitous: 83 percent, to 455. The only segment that has grown is of farmers over 70, currently 633.

On Sunday, Japanese voters are expected to return to power the Liberal Democrats, the politicians who over the last half-century have irrigated Japan's farm sector with subsidies and kept city food prices high through tariffs.

But judging by the advancing age of farmers in this town 120 miles north of Tokyo, and by the advance of scrub forest into abandoned farmland, the Liberal Democrats are playing a waiting game, waiting for the grim reaper gradually to thin the ranks of Japan's politically influential farmers.

"Young people dislike farming," Akiyoshi Ouchi, 50, said, looking a little sheepish about his son's abrupt flight. Speaking under the gaze of Sidek Bin Saadon, his 23-year-old "agricultural trainee" from Malaysia, Mr. Ouchi said that of the 73 farm households in his district, only four other families lived solely from farming.

The wait for a policy shift in Tokyo may not be long.

Later in the month, Japanese and Mexican negotiators are to resume talks on a free trade pact. Last month, Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, left Tokyo empty-handed after Japanese negotiators refused to allow measures that would harm pig farmers and orange juice producers. But Japan's leading business group, the Keidanren, calculates that Japanese companies lose $3.6 billion each year that passes without a bilateral free trade pact.

The announcement that Japan would resume talks with Mexico shortly after the election indicates that Japan intends to keep its promises to start free trade talks early next year with South Korea and Thailand, both major rice producers.

Despite billions of dollars in subsidies and protective rice tariffs as high as 490 percent, young rural dwellers do not think the government will maintain today's economic fantasyland in which a farmer can earn $50,000 a year from three acres.

Contributing to the bleak economics of rice farming, last summer's cool and rainy weather is making this fall's rice crop Japan's worst in a decade.

"We knew changes would come, so we decided that he would work outside," Kazuya Furukawa, a 56-year-old rice farmer, said gesturing to Tatsuya, his 34-year-old son, who has a civil service job.

Across the archipelago, the number of people working full time in farming has dropped steadily, to about 2.8 million today, down from 3.9 million in 1980, and from 12 million in 1960.

Here in the Fukushima prefecture, which once had Japan's largest tobacco crop and its second-largest production of silkworms, it is easy to spot some of the region's 40,000 acres of recently abandoned farmland.

In the folds of the hills here, cattails grow in abandoned, 300-year-old rice paddies. On hillsides, weeds grow in old tobacco patches. Mulberry orchards have been left to grow wild, victims of a silkworm business that collapsed in face of low-priced Chinese competition.

"The youngest farmer I know around here is 45," said Yoshio Kanomata, 62, who drives a taxi to make ends meet. His four children have migrated into local white-collar jobs. At this year's harvest time for the family tobacco crop, his wife, Sueko, hired three neighbors: two 70-year-old women and a 75-year-old man.

With government support for tobacco being phased out, the value of tobacco produced in this town has dropped 75 percent since 1975, the mulberry leaf production has been wiped out, and the production of rice, the untouchable of Japanese farm policy, has dropped by a third. The only growth has been in truck farming as production of vegetables has doubled, largely for local market.

"We are going back to the old saying: in order to keep healthy you should eat food grown from the area surrounded by four li," said Shigeru Fukaya, the town employee charged with promoting agriculture, using a local measurement. "You won't get sick if you only eat crops from a four-kilometer-by-four- kilometer area."

While Japanese consumers like locally grown fresh food, they no longer seem swayed by scare campaigns on imported rice.

"American rice is not that much different," Mr. Furukawa, a 12th-generation rice farmer, said in his farmhouse, where the family shrine room includes a portrait of Emperor Hirohito, Japan's wartime leader. "I cook in the winter at the ski area near here. I have used it. I don't think there is a difference."

While Japan limits its rice imports to 770,000 tons, less than 10 percent of its needs, many city dwellers say they would prefer cheap American rice to expensive domestic rice.

At the same time, many Japanese are concerned that the country now relies on imports to cover 60 percent of its food needs, the highest ratio among major nations in the world.

"Japan is the world's largest agricultural importer country," Yoshiyuki Kamei, Japan's agriculture minister, said in a recent briefing for foreign reporters. Pegging imports at around $35 billion year, he added: "Even compared to Germany, which ranks second, Japanese net food imports are more than double Germany's imports."

Despite the general hand-wringing over agriculture in Japan, farming is in retreat. In recent years, farmers have started to battle a new threat: wild boars rooting up their fields.

"The increase of boars is because of the abandonment of farmland," Mr. Fukaya said. "As far as agriculture is concerned, this is a dropout town."

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