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In Japan, they farm like this; in American, they farm like that.
December 1, 2011 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Japan's youth, unable to find jobs in the city, look to life on the farm.

Tired be being unable to find permanent work in the country's cities, Japanese youth are beginning to consider opportunities in rural areas. With the average age of a Japanese farmer being 65.8 years old, this influx of young people comes at a much needed time.

Meanwhile, in America, young people are seeking to become farmers -- and accepting incredibly low wages -- for very different reasons: independence and social justice. Those who are seeking job security may be getting forced out:
Increased competition for such low pay raises a troubling possibility, one that has plagued other attractive but low-paying fields, like journalism: those with bills to pay or families to support, who cannot afford to accept farm wages, may be squeezed out, leaving the best farm jobs to those whose financial safety net (parents, trust fund, etc) allows them the luxury of working for nothing.
posted by asnider (36 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
"I wanted to change so I had a slower life. I wanted to become a farmer. The work is slower paced and it is really fulfilling. Plus have you played the Harvest Moon games? So good."
posted by naju at 9:05 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, please.

A few Catholics years back tried to give something of a theological underpinning to this feeling.
posted by resurrexit at 9:21 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


How are you going to keep them in Paree once they've been down on the farm?
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:45 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, it's a lot better than in 1937, when it was "Japan's youth, unable to find jobs in the city, look to invade China."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:52 AM on December 1, 2011 [15 favorites]


Less stressful and as an added bonus, for a limited time only, you put yourself in what could be the best location in case of world wide, civilization ending events.

I'd be tempted to do this in Pennsylvania if it weren't for the wages/treatment issue. As it stands, I wonder how well the Japanese would do with someone 6'5" who needs to learn the language...

(probably not well in the least)
posted by Slackermagee at 9:55 AM on December 1, 2011


There is not a whole lot of arable land there. This fad has no legs.
posted by Renoroc at 10:20 AM on December 1, 2011


It's not necessarily about the wages. There's large scale farming as an employee, and then there's local/household farming. The latter has the most to recommend it, for the fulfillment, health, and stability going forward.

Of course every household does need some money, but it's a jigsaw puzzle and if you're creative you can live on very little cash. To do that, expectations have to change dramatically, and you have to throw away much of what mainstream culture says is the good life.

Farming has too long been stigmatized, and it's nice to see one of the industrial world's most damaging trends starting to turn around. That 20th century civilization thought it could dispense with small scale farming reveals the irredeemable folly of its core assumptions (of which my favorite are 1. that you can get something for nothing, and 2. that pulling petroleum out of the ground is an example of 1.) Of course that verges on other topics, but any farmer knows all things are connected.
posted by maniabug at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


this provides an interesting counterpoint to the usual "rural japan is depopulating and full of old people" articles. i feel like there is all kind of context that i am missing due to my exposure to this issue being mainly ding-dong-ass overviews though.
posted by beefetish at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Renoroc, in other words Japan has a population problem. There are more of them than their land can support. Industrialism has brought many nations into this precarious state under the guise of progress.
posted by maniabug at 10:24 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is not a whole lot of arable land there. This fad has no legs.

Comparative advantage is folly when it comes to supporting yourself. A stable, local food supply on whatever good land you have will help you when the comparative advantage of factories goes away.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:26 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, it's a lot better than in 1937, when it was "Japan's youth, unable to find jobs in the city, look to invade China."

I know this is a joke, but christ, what an asshole joke it is.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 10:36 AM on December 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


There's 4 million hectares of arable land according to a 2008 study. Not a huge amount, no, but if you get creative with how you use that land for farming and food production, you can do some interesting things. Like these people producing a million pounds of foodstuffs per year on only 3 acres of land. If you could maintain that sort of production density you could feed the population of Japan using only 140,000 of those 4 million hectares. Obviously you're not going to be able to do that with the demand for different crops of varying production densities, but it shows that to adopt a "farming" lifestyle might not take as much land as you think and the production can be quite good.
posted by barc0001 at 10:40 AM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I know this is a joke, but christ, what an asshole joke it is.

It's not really a joke. Lack of access to basic economic resources (like jobs) are often the cause of wars. The sole cause, you could argue. When you get a lot of unemployed people together, bad things tend to happen.

Sending kids to the farm is a good thing, because it wasn't all that long ago that Japan handed rifles to its kids instead of rakes and shovels.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:49 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not really a joke. Lack of access to basic economic resources (like jobs) are often the cause of wars. The sole cause, you could argue.

I agree with the "haha only serious" and that bad economies lead to bad wars. But "sole cause"? It wasn't lack of jobs that induced the US to invade Iraq recently.
posted by DU at 10:57 AM on December 1, 2011


There is not a whole lot of arable land there. This fad has no legs.

From what I understand it's a comparatively harmless source for nationalism in a subsidized industry. Everyone can't be farmers, but the ones who take that path take the pressure off some of the ones who want to be something else. And with advances in telecommunications maybe rural Japanese people won't have to sacrifice some of the fun things living urban gives.
posted by Phalene at 11:09 AM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Farming has too long been stigmatized, and it's nice to see one of the industrial world's most damaging trends starting to turn around. That 20th century civilization thought it could dispense with small scale farming reveals the irredeemable folly of its core assumptions (of which my favorite are 1. that you can get something for nothing, and 2. that pulling petroleum out of the ground is an example of 1.) Of course that verges on other topics, but any farmer knows all things are connected.

Farming hasn't been stigmatized much. Laboring for crappy wages in the fields, and utilizing land less than optimally, has been, for understandable reasons. I don't get the sense from the story that farming is all that stigmatized in Japan (nor in the US), but rather, some younger people find themselves in agreement with the agrarian lifestyle.

Modern farming techniques have made small scale farming a more difficult row to hoe. This hasn't changed. Often, what makes small scale farming viable in a place like the US is when the farmer successfully sells technique and intentions more than the actual farmed goods.

Renoroc, in other words Japan has a population problem. There are more of them than their land can support. Industrialism has brought many nations into this precarious state under the guise of progress.

I don't think this is true. In fact, Japan's population problems point in the other direction.

The idea that Japan must produce the food it consumes doesn't really fly, either. Unless one demands that Japan views self-sustainability in a way that makes North Korea look progressive. The reason is that Japan (nor any of the West) really isn't in a precarious state when it comes to food. Ideally Japan (and everyone else) should determine its self sustainability in food, or any other goods, based on more rational considerations than insisting borderlines on a map must functions as barriers to goods.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:24 AM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]



I can totally understand why someone might want to exchange a live in a city in Japan for farming.

The slower pace, the larger spaces, interaction with farm animals. All of these things might be preferable to being an Office Lady, living in a 4.5 mat room next to a paper factory.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:35 AM on December 1, 2011


That million(-ish) pounds on 3 acres thing is interesting, and for a change the Youtube comments are readable. It does set off my "if it sounds too good to be true" alarm, but there may be something to it. The basic claim is that they've found multiple farming activities that are complementary when carried out in proximity with attention to the cycle. This is the essence of agriculture, and especially of permaculture and the use of complementary species. So, the premise may be sound.

Use of fish waste and composting heat as inputs is a good sign. Taking soil health to be the basis of good agriculture is another.
posted by maniabug at 11:37 AM on December 1, 2011


I'm not hung up on lines on a map, but the importance of proximity between production and consumption can't be dismissed. The precariousness of our agriculture comes from the outrageous inputs of concentrated energy required to sustain the production, processing, and distribution. This is a big blind spot in our culture. Industrial agriculture is a nightmare, and it will not remain even superficially workable as our civilization runs up against hard resource limits.

If the planet could carry 7 billion without that energy input, why did we arrive in that neighborhood only so recently and abruptly?
posted by maniabug at 12:01 PM on December 1, 2011


"If the planet could carry 7 billion without that energy input, why did we arrive in that neighborhood only so recently and abruptly?"

Well, the short answer is that there were a lot of other factors limiting growth like disease and other health problems that kept overall population in check. I think with proper planning and food resource management 7 billion isn't an un-sustainable number, or even maybe 10 billion. But there's the rub, we don't have such planning in place on the scale needed, nor are we likely to so we'll instead hit limits and as industrial farming starts to run out of shortcuts with petroleum-based products and overtapped aquifers we're going to see some very ugly things. Wars are certainly a possibility and that's one corrective mechanism for the population problem, particularly if the nukes start to fly.
posted by barc0001 at 12:09 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


the importance of proximity between production and consumption can't be dismissed

It can't be dismissed but it is frequently wildly overstated. There's no benefit to "locally grown" if it requires more energy to grow the produce locally than it does to ship it from further away. If you do full life-cycle analyses of energy use it often works out that it's less energy-efficient to source locally. Transportation costs are the most visible energy costs in food production, but they are rarely in fact a very high percentage of total energy consumed.
posted by yoink at 12:15 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not really a joke.

In that case it's obnoxious and inflammatory to jump at this unrelated chance to bring up Japan's militarism and the imperial aspirations that brought about the Pacific War, not to mention that you've misidentified the specific causes. But you were never trying for accuracy, just getting in a cheap shot. Bravo! Now stand down, soldier.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:25 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Good points. One of the great things about farming is that you're reminded how humans are animals, mortal and subject to natural constraints like any other species. We don't need to be 7 or 10 billion.

Yoink, yes there is a benefit, because the energy input for transport is not the only factor. I just brought it up because it's a big one. There's also the health of local communities and livable land promoted by localized production and consumption. Just in terms of energy, another major sink is the fertilizer and pesticides required to dedicate huge land tracts to monoculture, and the preservative based processing and refrigeration required to support long haul distribution. These tactics exist because they're demanded by a centralized and transport-intensive model, and must be counted along with the actual truck/train fuel.

Kind of a derail I guess, but to my mind these puts and takes go hand in hand with the personal experiences of workers discussed in the OP.
posted by maniabug at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2011


It's not really a joke. Lack of access to basic economic resources (like jobs) are often the cause of wars. The sole cause, you could argue. When you get a lot of unemployed people together, bad things tend to happen.

The how does this explain how your country has initiated wars every decade for the past century?
posted by KokuRyu at 1:33 PM on December 1, 2011


Not sure why this thread has to also devolve into "too many Japanese can't feed themselves". Most urban centres have to import food from elsewhere - cities, using this crude metric, are therefore unsustainable.

Basically, anyone commenting or reading in this thread is living an usustainable lifestyle. Bringing up Japan in this case is a red herring.

Anyway, I'm in Japan at the moment, living in one of the rural areas talked about in the article. My rice came from less than 5km from my house; the fish I eat comes from a sustainable fishery in the bay; the miso I ate was produced locally (although the beans probably came from the States); same as the tofu. All the vegetables I ate over the last week were grown locally. The milk we serve our kids was produced 50km from here. Vegetables and fruit are all local.

I could not eat this way back in British Columbia (which, incidentally, also has the same food security issues Japan has). Barely anything at the store is local.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:40 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


One thing I did love when I was in Japan early this year was the focus - culturally, culinarily, legislatively, economically - on localness. Regions pride themselves on regional specialities, and small business were everywhere. Even the most busy areas of Tokyo were filled with small "mom and pop" outfits selling things made or directly sourced by the owners, and franchises have nowhere near the ubiquity and power they do here in Australia. Also, these local outfits are almost always very reasonably priced for what the offer.

Now, the flip side of this might very well be crippling high-tarrifs and oft-times somewhat corrupt govt intervention in trade and other areas, and there may indeed be some lines that can be drawn from here to Japan's greater malaise.

But, as a visitor, it was so refreshing to be able to buy things from people that make them, or know the people that do. The emphasis on local and quality was an understatement of fact in Japan - rather than another marketing gimmick to justify sky-high prices as it too often is here. It made everything feel, well, good quality. Bespoke living, I guess you could say.

Also, the Japanese countryside is almost unbearably gorgeous and the stories about isolation do make this Australian chuckle a little. There's practically nowhere in Japan that's isolated. When people found out we were catching the train from Tokyo to Hakuba in the northwest, they couldn't believe we were "only" going for three days - it's so much travelling! FYI, it was about a four hour journey...
posted by smoke at 1:58 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


> The reason is that Japan (nor any of the West) really isn't in a precarious state when it comes
> to food. Ideally Japan (and everyone else) should determine its self sustainability in food,
> or any other goods, based on more rational considerations than insisting borderlines on a map
> must functions as barriers to goods.

No Asian country will have forgotten the insane run-up in the price of rice in 2008. Which was not caused by any fundamental shortage but by a massive self-reinforcing fuckup in the world's Rube Goldberg arrangements for exporting, shipping, importing, and regulating rice. (Overview of the crisis from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization; tl;dr version from Bloomberg.) The crisis hurt poor nations heavily dependent on imported rice (the Philippines, e.g.) more than it hurt Japan, which is not poor and is self-sufficient in rice production in addition to being forced to import another several hundred thousand tons annually by WTO rules. But growing enough rice for their own needs goes deep into the Japanese psyche, and that strikes me as very sensible. Even if such a market fuckup doesn't happen again (because people are so good at learning from past mistakes and not repeating them), just knowing that my supply of the basic foodstuff I live on could be disrupted by real and increasingly likely fundamentals, such as an energy shortage resulting in no fuel for rice cargo ships, would make me hella nervous and anybody telling me "Don't worry, be happy, have another imported sticky rice ball, there'll always be more where that came from" might not get my full attention. If the Japanese wanted to say rice for human consumption stops at the border, jf goes "OK with me, I would do the same."
posted by jfuller at 2:00 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


"I could not eat this way back in British Columbia (which, incidentally, also has the same food security issues Japan has). Barely anything at the store is local."

I'd have to disagree, depending on where you are. I live in Mission and almost all of my produce with the exception of fruits like bananas comes from BC. Meat I go to a farm an hour away in Aggasiz once every 6 months or so and buy a big pack of various cuts and get some amazing bacon, etc. Wheat is an issue since nobody in BC bothers to grow it with Saskatchewan and Alberta sending it by the trainload here, and other things are also an issue, but I'd say if push came to shove and BC had to feed itself it wouldn't be a problem. Variety might be, but even then perhaps not. Citrus trees apparently can live and produce fruit on Vancouver Island now, where 20 years ago that wasn't possible. Climate change FTW?
posted by barc0001 at 2:04 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I confess I'm no expert on Japan. If they do tend to value local production highly, perhaps what the OP article describes isn't as far fetched as it would be here for just that reason.

Also maybe their food prices are not held artificially low to the extent that they are here by big agribusiness, so the farm labor wages aren't so bad.
posted by maniabug at 2:25 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Farming in Japan is a pretty respected thing. Among the programs dealing with farm life on tv, the commentators usually act pretty reverent towards the topic, which is a rarity on most shows here. It's also been, historically, a job you can make a living at. Food prices are high, and the govt. is pretty generous with subsidies.

Of course, the timing might be bad for young people getting into farming now. It seems Japan is leaning towards the Trans Pacific Partnership, or free trade zone currently being discussed. The reason riceia so expensive here is the protectionism that is so ingrained to the system. If the tariff barrier falls, and the Japanese rice farmer is put in direct competition with the one in Malaysia, the Japanese farmer is screwed.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:41 PM on December 1, 2011


Don't you think it's also because Japanese rice actually tastes better? We get koshihikari rice from California and Texas in Canada, but it doesn't taste nearly as good as rice in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:01 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu, please tell more and more people that. Shout it loud. Shout it often. That will help me a lot! ;)

Here on Sado, I'm not seeing too much of an influx of young people on the farming scene. I still feel like the youngest one out there at 35. However, that might be because I'm on an island.

The TPP is definitely scaring most of the farmers I talk with. Every conversation tends to touch on that topic at least once. Not sure how I feel about it, though.
posted by snwod at 3:19 PM on December 1, 2011


Japanese rice definitely tastes better. I loved the taste of it when I first went to Japan as a child, and all the different brands of "Japanese" rice from the USA and Australia didn't come close.
posted by Alnedra at 5:17 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have my doubts about whether or not the TPP will have much effect on rice farming in Japan (obviously snwod is the expert here), but from what I understand, rice farming as it is practiced in Japan is in decline anyway - most plots are very, very small and are family-run enterprises, and most farming families rely on other sources of income to survive. It's not a profitable business for many farmers, and only survives because of government subsidies. Farmers are getting older, and more and more farms are being turned over to developers (this is certainly the case in Tsuruga where I have lived, off and on, for the past 16 years).

The way forward may be for larger entities to run bigger rice farms, as is practiced in Niigata and the Shonai region of Yamagata, that will allow rice farmers to be more competitive with imports.

But I doubt any Japanese family would willingly buy foreign rice anyway (unless they were unaware it was foreign).

Not sure what the stats are, but I think most of the rice used by low-cost chain restaurants is foreign, as is rice used by processed-food manufacturers for various products.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2011


Farmers are and have long been respected as an idea in Japan, but in recent times relatively few people have actually wanted to be one. For example, since traditional farms are often run along traditional lines, the eldest son or at least a son is supposed to inherit the place. These sons often return to the farm after a short career in the city and find themselves socially isolated, with few people around them who share their experiences and ideas. It is also notoriously hard for them to find women willing to marry them and live together on a farm forever. This is why you see a relatively high incidence of "administratively facilitated international marriages" in rural Japan.

So the story here isn't "Youth discover new respect for farming," it's "Proportion of youth who find city life less appealing than farming is rising." And this makes sense given that a young person's chances of finding a well-paying, secure job that will allow them to enjoy the romance of city life (rather than scratching together rent from two dead-end, no-security, part-time jobs) are getting lower.

The reason is that Japan (nor any of the West) really isn't in a precarious state when it comes to food. Ideally Japan (and everyone else) should determine its self sustainability in food, or any other goods, based on more rational considerations than insisting borderlines on a map must functions as barriers to goods.

jfuller has already addressed this, but let me chime in too. Yes, at this present moment Japan could probably import all the food it needs from overseas, even if all Japanese farms stopped producing overnight. But you would have to be extremely optimistic, if not credulous, to assume that this situation will continue uninterrupted forever, particularly if you believe that this safety net will be woven by the invisible hand and comparative advantage.

Were you even awake in 2008? Heard of global warming? Following the news on fishery stocks? Trust me, if Japan or the West ever does arrive at a precarious state when it comes to food, it will be very suddenly, and everyone will be shocked, shocked, that such a thing could happen!

It's not nationalism, and it is ridiculous to call it that, if Japanese people look at the political and economic situation of the world, feel a little uneasy about the prospects of perfect stability forever. It's not nationalism if Japanese people recognize that rich, insulated people engaged in food commodities trading do not care if millions of people starve in their own continent, let alone in some island on the other side of the world. It's not nationalism to want to preserve what little biodiversity and local culture remains in the world. And it's not nationalism if I, a resident of a community Japan, prefer to buy my vegetables from a guy who is part of my community too, and my rice from a guy who is part of the broader community to which we all contribute taxes, (especially given that they taste better than the alternative).
posted by No-sword at 5:45 PM on December 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not nationalism if Americans do those things, either.

Kokuryu, with much respect, I believe bigger farms is exactly the wrong answer, as has been amply demonstrated in the US. We need to stop confusing profit with weal. The erosion of community farming as an institution by macroeconomics and by development is a dire public problem.
posted by maniabug at 7:01 AM on December 2, 2011


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