The TPP and Rural Japan
Japan’s agricultural trade protectionism doubles as a regional economic policy, since it protects regional economies, especially Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Tohoku. These regions already lag far behind urban
Japan in terms of per capita GDP. This income divide is matched by an ever-widening demographic divide: Japan’s rural periphery faces something resembling demographic oblivion in the not too distant future. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS), a Japanese state research body, describes the country as facing a future ‘super-aged society ... the first experience in human history’. By far the most dramatic effects of this are to be seen in rural prefectures. In a few years, two out of every five Japanese people will be over the current retirement age, and one-fifth of the population will be over 75: the current life expectancy being 83. In rural prefectures such as Akita, projections suggest that as many as 43.9% of inhabitants will be over 65 by 2040. As we have already seen, Japanese farmers are aging, and a large proportion of those part-time farmers supplement their pensions or other income with farming. These are precisely the type of farms that will be affected by agricultural reform and liberalization, whether it be through increased land taxes aimed specifically at removing them from the agricultural landscape, or through competition from overseas through the TPP.
Although many studies focus on the need for agricultural reform, they often pay less attention to the negative impact that the reforms could have on these regions and their elderly inhabitants. Harada posits food processing in rural regions as a solution. He argues that ‘the development of the food processing industry would create job opportunities for former farmers’ and that ‘even if import ingredients are used, the industry can provide jobs and income to sustain the local economy’. Furthermore, he states that the TPP would create other job opportunities for these out-of-work farmers. However, the main beneficiaries of the TPP are likely to be large manufacturing exporters. These companies are not generally located in or indeed anywhere near rural towns and villages, and it is difficult to see significant numbers of elderly former farmers in peripheral prefectures abandoning their hometowns and moving to major urban centres to work for their last years. It is possible that younger people in these regions will leave, however. While perhaps a boon to the Japanese economy, this will only further exacerbate the demographic crisis in rural areas.
The other argument put forward is, as mentioned previously, that either young farmers or corporations would use the opportunity to consolidate farms, thus benefitting agriculture in the regions. Encouraging the younger, motivated, and innovative farmers would undoubtedly be positive for Japanese agriculture and the peripheral regions. Encouraging corporate farming would have more mixed results. Small-scale farmers would be forced out of their farms by either land tax increases or international market forces, and their land would then be bought out by large companies. It is highly unlikely that these former small holders would return to their or their neighbours’ former land as farm workers. Small-scale rural farming is not singularly an economic activity producing profit. It is also about, among other things, tradition, the consumption of one’s own produce, exchange with neighbours and family, and sending food to family in urban areas. It maintains social life in small communities. This cannot be easily rendered into a simple labour-wage exchange. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that corporate farming would seek to hire pensioners to work the company fields. In fact, according to an article by the financial news company Bloomberg, since the Abe administration enacted laws easing the entry of companies into corporate farming, ‘Seven and I Holdings Co. and Lawson Inc. have already started buying farmland and training workers to replace Japan’s current agricultural landowners’. What is not mentioned in the article (Bloomberg generally publishes pro-liberalization and TPP work) is the fact, as with rural industry, that the workers undergoing training are likely to be immigrant labour (mostly Chinese) on temporary visas with a maximum validity of 3 years. Simply put, farmers are being replaced by a temporary immigrant agricultural workforce. Therefore, while agricultural reforms might well increase productivity due to corporate farming, and might even tempt young farmers to expand, unless part of a broader policy of rural promotion, they could also lead to the death of the small farm, the widening of the rural-urban wealth gap, higher levels of poverty among elderly rural dwellers, and the exacerbation of the hollowing out of Japan’s regions.