Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
The JOAA and Japanese Agriculture
Kana illustrates one choice that young Japanese are making in the 2000s. She comes from the mobile middle class of the 1960s and '70s; her father, a second son in a farming family, became a local government worker. Kana grew up in a small house on the family's land, but the salary of her father and the parttime wages of her mother sent her to a mid-level university and enabled her to study abroad. In becoming an organic farmer, Kana chose to be poor but true to her values. Kana has turned to living locally in an environmentally responsible way by raising and distributing organic vegetables. She has rerooted herself in the land where she and her ancestors were raised, dedicated to revitalizing the natural farming methods of the past and using them as a beacon of hope in the present.
Through the asian rural institute, Kana found a group of like-minded people in the JOaa, an association founded in 1971 by people who were concerned about the health and safety of their food as Japan surged toward massive industrialization (JOaa 2011). In the late 1960s, women consumers wanted food that was not laced with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. In tokyo, a group of women asked a group of farmers out in Chiba, several hours away, to grow organic vegetables for them. At first the farmers did it mainly for economic advantage, as the mikan (tangerines) in which the government had told them to specialize had failed to bring profit. But they delivered organic vegetables to the tokyo women, who brought their children out to help on the farms in the summers (Moen 1997). Under the leadership of “pioneer” organic farmers, who are now in their sixties and seventies, the JOaa laid down three main tenets by which their members should try to live: teikei, or consumer groups with face-to-face, non-market relationships with particular farmers, similar to communitysupported agriculture (Csa) in the United states; jikyū, or self-sufficiency for the farmer's household; and junkan, or a local cycle of farming on the land, using plant and animal waste for compost (JOaa 2011). The JOaa and its members—both farmers and consumers—have established a resistance that is oppositional to the capitalist market and economic growth. The aim is to take food out of the commodity market and put it squarely within a relationship with the land, the local climate, and the people producing and eating it.
Thus the inheritance of Kana and other young organic farmers is an organic food movement that in the face of poisoning from industrial and agricultural pollution has stood against the use of any agricultural chemicals. The pioneers refused to buy the agricultural chemicals and fertilizers sold by the powerful agricultural cooperatives (nōkyō), which operationalized the government's agricultural policies. The pioneers also rebelled against the government's policies to control farmers' use of the land and its products—such policies as rice mono-cropping; government payments to let certain land lie fallow; and the sale of rice to the government with controlled prices. Furthermore, they objected to the hollowing out of agricultural villages as the government encouraged mechanized, part-time farming and the migration of farm household members to the cities to work in industry. All such measures supported rapid economic growth, the main aim of the postwar government that was supported by the United states. The result was that Japanese agricultural policy allowed small farmers with an average of about five acres or two hectares to survive, but it has not allowed agriculture to flourish (Mulgan 2006).
Two examples of organic farmer pioneers illustrate the experiences of that generation of organic farmers. One man in his late fifties had been motivated to go into organic agriculture by his anger over Minamata disease—an illness caused by mercury dumped into a bay in southern Japan by the Chisso chemical company; the government took years to admit to it and decades to compensate the victims. A group of consumers in tokyo set this pioneer and his friends up in farming in the seventies several hours north of tokyo, but after several conflicts, the farmer and his wife went independent and set up a group of consumers to whom they still deliver food in tokyo. Unlike other postwar educated people, they were satisfied to educate their four children in rural schools and on the land. Now they farm with their eldest son while educating Others, helping to run an urban organic garden in a park in tokyo and an organic garden beside a tourist restaurant near their home.
In the second case, a man who grew up on a farm in northeastern Japan was convinced that his mother had become sick because of agricultural chemicals used in his father's apple orchards. He did not want the same fate for his wife and child, so they took a pilgrimage to see a Dr. Yanase in western Japan. They had heard that by growing and using organic vegetables as medicine, the doctor had healed his rural patients who were suffering from the effects of agricultural chemicals and had symptoms much like his own mother's. They became believers. His mother soon died, but his father never gave his permission to switch the farm to organic. This man and his wife did what they could, buying land in another village while helping his father on his farm. They continue to deliver a weekly box of vegetables, fruit, and rice to consumers who have become old friends in the nearby regional city and manage many aspects of their consumer group. Now their son farms the grandfather's farm while their daughter and her family live with the parents and help with vegetable production.
Organic farmers like Kana face a somewhat different set of policies than these pioneers did, but the emphasis on industrial growth and an anemic agricultural sector have not changed. In the 1990s and 2000s, the world trade Organization brought increasing pressure on Japan to open its markets, even to rice, and in response Japanese agricultural policy has required farmers to integrate their lands, using local growing cooperatives or group contracting in order for them to get government subsidies. The government also now rewards farmers who diversify their crops. Although the average age of farmers in Japan was sixty-six in 2010 (“Japan aims at Bigger Farms to Boost Competitiveness” 2011) and usually younger people do not opt to continue farming, families do not want to give up their land and fear corporate incursion. Both conventional and organic farmers are up in arms because in the beginning of 2012, the government announced that it would pursue membership in the trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade organization that would open Japanese markets further to cheap, imported foods. This situation has put the JOaa organic farmers into an uneasy alliance with conventional farmers.
As an organic farmer in the 2000s, Kana is part of a minority of farmers in Japan, although their numbers are slowly but steadily growing (Kubota and yoshino 2011). In 2011, there were twelve thousand organic farming households, only .47 percent of the farming households of Japan, farming only .36 percent of the agricultural land, and delivering .35 percent of the food. The Average age of organic farmers, however, is lower than that of conventional farmers (whose average age is fifty-nine), with 9 percent below forty and 38 percent between forty and sixty, figures that reflect the appeal of organic farming to younger people like Kana, who want to live life differently (“yūkinōgyō 12,000 ko: Heikinnenrei wa 59 sai” 2011).3 JOaa farmers worry about the cheaper prices of imported organics because by official statistics more imported organic products than domestic are sold in Japan (Kumasawa 2009).
Compared to the unfriendly context within which the pioneer organic farmers worked in the seventies, organic farmers in the 2000s practice in a policy environment that gives them some support. The government has passed two laws, one in 2001 that set standards for organic products through the Organic Jas inspection and Certification system and another in 2006 that promotes organic farming with some monetary benefits attached. The JOaa fought to pass both laws, but many organic farmers find organic certification expensive and unnecessary because they find their standards to be actually above the government's standards. Kana, for example, does not have certification. Even the promotion of organic farming law has pitted the JOaa against large companies (started in the 1980s and '90s) that contract with farmers and distribute organic food along with foods grown with “low” agrochemicals right to consumers' doors.
These large distribution companies, such as Daichi or radish Bōya, are quite popular with working mothers and aging women, who find the purely organic food from farmers like Kana expensive and less convenient (Moen 2000). The price of organics is about 1.65 times the price of conventional food (“Domestic Market of Organic Products” 2006). Typical Japanese consumers demand safe, healthy food; enjoy seasonal food; and are very concerned about the food's place of origin; they are less concerned for the environment and demand perfect products, convenience, and reasonable pricing (Hasegawa 2008). Consumers who belong to consumer groups do so first to get safe food; second, to support the farmers; third, to get healthy food; and last, to increase national self-sufficiency in food. About a third of consumers who frequently buy organic food belong to consumer groups, whereas two-thirds of occasional consumers buy organics at supermarkets—an option that is increasing in the 2000s but did not exist in the seventies (Kubota and yoshino 2011). In short, as a young organic farmer in the 2000s, Kana faces a lot of competition from other sources of organic food and even more from sources of sustainable products that use lower quantities of agrochemicals and guarantee no genetically modified food, just like organic produce. By 2008 organic food was accepted in part because it appealed to fears that Japanese hold about the risks harbored by foods imported from other countries and even some Japanese foods. Postwar Japan had seen many problems with foods because of pollutants. In the 2000s incidents of tainted beef in Japan and poisoned pot stickers from China reinforced the sense that food was risky and that mothers needed to take great care to protect their children (rosenberger 2009). Many people have feared american imported food because of overuse of chemical fertilizers and genetic modification of plant Dna. Thus organic consumption was one way for mothers to deal with the uncertainties of raising children in a global food system with risks that they themselves could not trace and that even their government could not fully monitor.
The radioactive contamination of parts of Japan after March 11, 2011, changed the scenario, making some Japanese food unsafe and all Japanese food potentially unsafe. Suddenly imported foods like australian beef and american soybeans seemed appealing. Kana and others had cherished the ideal that organic food was “safe” and gave a feeling of calm and security (anzen, anshin) for themselves and their consumers, but now they could no longer necessarily make such a claim. The fact that the government pointed to the dangers of using natural compost, implying that imported, man-made fertilizers were better, did not help the organic farmers. But more on that below.
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