Fallow Fields and Food Security

As an American, I find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like in Japan during the Allied occupation post WWII. Given Japan’s seclusion from the rest of the world for much of history, the profound shock to the people and traditional culture, as the country faced loss, widespread starvation and homelessness, must have been calamitous.

During the occupation, Allied forces reshaped Japan into a democracy modeled, roughly, after the American New Deal. Japan’s post-war constitution, adopted in 1947, removed political and military power from the emperor, and includes a clause (Article 9) which banned Japan from leading a war or maintaining armed forces. Shinto and the state were clearly separated.

Japanese_Empire2 map

Changes to the Japanese Empire post WW2.

This bit of history led me to better understand land use in Japan, and some of the issues Japan faces regarding agriculture. Prior to the war, Japan’s regions cultivated agricultural land in large tracts, with farmers working in a serf-like system, farming for an overlord and keeping a percentage of the harvest to feed families and communities. Post-war reform eliminated these concentrations in land ownership and instead awarded small, subsistence tracts to private citizens.

The latter fact becomes important to Japan’s current land use and food self-sufficiency status. The farmer population in Japan, with a current average age of 66, may not farm for long. In some cases, farmers choose to let ground lie fallow, rather than selling it, because keeping the land has tax advantages.  In other cases, owners may rent the land to younger farmers, if they find youngsters who want to farm. As a result of an aging farmer population and agriculture land left unused (among other factors), the number of agriculture workers decreased from 14.39 million in 1960 (32.7 percent of the total workforce) to 2.38 million in 2010 (4.2 percent), and the GDP share of the industries fell from 12.8 percent in 1960 to 1.2 percent in 2010. Rice output dropped from around 11 thousand tons in 1995 to around 8.5 thousand tons in 2010. The total number of commercial farm households dropped from 3 million in 1990 to 1.6 million in 2010 to an estimated 1.1 million in 2020. Productivity growth in vegetables, fruits and nuts output provides some degree of mitigation, but the downward trend in overall productivity remains.

Almost every veggie gets pickled in Japan, and “pickles” don’t just refer to pickled cukes.

The current government recognizes the resultant challenge to both food security and self-sufficiency, and determined a goal of 50 percent food self-sufficiency in its 2010 “Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas.” However, even if the goal is fully realized, the situation appears to make trade agreements critically important to Japanese food security.

The following map provides the current status of Japan’s ETA/FTA negotiations. Apologies for the quality, I scanned it from a document provided to me at the Ministry of the Economy yesterday. Remember, trade negotiations are fluid, status may change daily (Hourly? Heck, it’s probably already outdated!)

Current Japan Trade Negotiations map

Many, many thanks to Watanabe-sensei, a professor of International Trade Policy at Kei University, and a trade negotiator, as well as officials at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Agriculture for the valuable historic and land use information contained in this post. A very special thanks to Tamazawa-san, a former minister of agriculture and minister of defense for Japan, who was intimately involved in Doha Round and the original WTO talks, for two full hours of his valuable time, and his wise perspective. 

Happily, no blog post would be complete without a photo of something I ate.

Soup, a grilled egg dish served over rice, and a side of fresh spring veggies. While the rest of our party ate the egg nearly raw, I asked for it cooked slightly firmer. I’m trying all the foods I can, but raw eggs still pose a problem for me–safety and consistency-wise. Rice comes into two types (with many, many varieties within these types)–Japonica and Indica. Japonica rice has a round grain and becomes sticky and moist when cooked. Indica rice grains are long and, when cooked, stay fluffy and do not stick together. Typically, Japanese cuisine uses Japonica rice and ASEAN cuisine uses Indica rice, although beef, pork and chicken curry dishes (originally from India but now called “Japanese curry” in Japan) are ubiquitous in Tokyo and contain Indica rice.



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