This week, Japan has been in the midst of a 10-day celebration culminating with the historic abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30, marking the end of the Heisei era, and the beginning of the Reiwa era of Emperor Naruhito on May 1. The abdication is the first such event in 200 years, bringing with it questions about the how the new emperor will play a role in politics and society. As the country completes the transition of its royal rulers, it has Japanese wondering about the country’s place within the Asian region and whether or not the new era will bring the “Peaceful Order” promised by its name.
Heisei, Not Heyday
The Heisei Era, which began in 1989 (the official enthronement ceremony occurred in 1990) exerted forces upon Japan’s self understanding over its 30 year span. In that period, the economic bubble collapsed in the 1990s, the country was pressured to commit militarily in some form to both Iraq Wars (opening the Self Defense Forces to participation in conflict for the first time), the Fukushima-Daiichi Triple Disasters in 2011 bought to light the government’s inability to respond to disasters and protect its citizens, and tensions across the water with both North Korea and China have emboldened the long-term rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the dominance of its more conservative elements.
It will be some time before historians are able to cohesively analyze and understand the major developments of the Heisei era. For longtime scholars of Japanese politics, the era presents as a conundrum with both hopeful and disappointing currents. Historian Paul Dunscomb argues that the era can be summed up in five key words: decline, tribulation, resistance, resilience, and transition. Among the trends that have been the strongest is the continued resilience of Japanese citizens themselves. Rice agriculture has seen a massive decline during the Heisei era with the withering of rice farming as farmers die off (the average rice farmer’s age is nearly 90), land is left fallow and abandoned and the ability for government institutions to insulate domestic rice growers had diminished. There has also been resistance to change, exhibited best the agriculture’s most important institution, its cooperative union.
Zembu, JA Zenchu
In the framework of Japan’s agricultural policy, Japan Agriculture (JA) Zenchu, the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, looms large. It has been a consistent force for the LDP and rural strength despite the government’s attempt at reforms. During the Heisei era, the organization significantly expanded its power and strengthened the presence of the institution even in the midst of demands to reform its central organization, threats to LDP dominance, free trade agreements (FTAs) which brought changes to age old support policies for agriculture, Japan’s accession to international trade regimes and pressure from the United States to open agricultural markets during TPP negotiations. One of the reasons for the persistence of JA is the multi-faceted nature of its organization, which exists in every prefecture in Japan, as well as its presence at all points in the marketing, production and farming of rice.
The importance of JA in rice farming, as well as other forms of farming today, cannot be underestimated. Local cooperatives are involved and help farmers with every stage of farming, from providing seeds at lower prices to selling fertilizers and pesticides, providing direction for planting, help with changing growing conditions due to weather and other adverse conditions such as disaster and disease. The organization provides storage, drying, and processing services for rice, soybeans, and vegetables.
Along with those services directly related to farming, JA also provides transportation, an agricultural machinery section that can maintain and fix machinery, and provides advice through regular meetings with local farmers. The cooperative also implements national policy which is coordinated by JA with the MAFF (Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and Forestry). JA Zenchu has 5.36 million non-farmer members (or associate members) and 4.61 million regular members, making its total membership 9.97 million.
Although it is an organization possessing significant political and social capital, it has failed to deliver to its most importance constituency: Japan’s rice farmers. Some farmers show a disinterest in the cooperatives and others are angry, saying the cooperatives have “done nothing.” Leaving farmers adrift and unable to compete with corporate farming which dominates in the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil (the world’s largest grain economies). JA is integral to farmers, so much so that they are dependent upon it, making entry into farming difficult unless one is a member. There is a tradition of farmers inheriting land from parents and other relatives, it is uncommon for people or companies with non-agricultural backgrounds to take up farming creating a system that is extremely closed to outsiders. Changes to recent laws however, may open farming to foreign corporations.
Ceding Seed Control?
Japan’s Seed Law (passed in 1952) was created to address the problem of food security. After World War II, the country and local governments set out to improve seeds for its major crops such as rice, soybeans and wheat. It is a policy that has greatly contributed to the control of Japan’s seed supply by JA. The law is the basis for agricultural experiment stations and budget requests made at the local level to help farmers cover the cost of seeds.
The strict control over which seeds were used guaranteed that all staple crops were domestically grown, using domestically produced seeds. JA is the agricultural actor responsible for developing seeds including starting seedlings for planting. The Seed Act was abolished by the Regulatory Reform Promotion Council, part of by the Advisory Council of the Abe Cabinet. The council has focused its efforts on reform with the stated goal of fundamentally changing agriculture in Japan through modernization and efficiency. Although the private sector has been allowed to develop and sell agricultural products, including seeds they are expensive and not appealing to farmers. The abolishment of the Seed Law allows the private sector, and large transnational corporations to enter into the seed business.
Paddy Farming No More?
In the past, the government and JA kept control over the growth, supply, and distribution of rice, even at the expense of rice growers. This control maintained the structure of rice growing in small plots (on average 1-1.5 acres large) grown by families and individuals that had to supplement their income or engage in rice farming part time.
Rice growing has maintained itself as long as it has because of the economic benefits that farmers reap from subsidies, but these subsidies are diminishing. Rice growing in Japan is inefficient and policies did not reward those rice growers that were most productive. Despite the power of JA Zenchu, it has acted to protect its own power and interests at the expense of its farmer constituents. The outcome of these policies is that rice farming looks very similar to the way it did nearly 100 years ago. It is looked upon by outsiders as an industry frozen in time and therefore unable to keep up with the advancements made in other countries.
Japanese rice growers are unable to compete with large scale industrial agriculture. While the process already begun allows corporate ownership, cooperatives are preventing it at the local level. Foreign agricultural corporations have yet to make inroads into Japanese rice growing. In the Reiwa era of the Peaceful Order, government decisions will seal the fate of Japanese agriculture, it is likely that small paddy rice farming will end unless cooperatives and government institutions act purposefully.
Nicole L. Freiner is an associate professor of Political Science at Bryant University where she teaches courses on Asian and Japanese Politics and Society, Comparative and Environmental Politics and Policy. She is the author of two books on Japanese Politics: The Social and Gender Politics of Confucian Nationalism: Women and the Japanese State (2012), and Rice and Agricultural Policies in Japan: The Loss of a Traditional Lifestyle (2019).