Subsidized Tradition, Networks, and Power: Hamlet Farming in Japan's Changing Agricultural Support and Protection Regime
Eating rice is the essence of ‘consuming the nation’1 in Japan. Yet, rice production is in an ever-deepening state of crisis. In the economically dwindling Japanese agricultural sector, rice is cultivated particularly inefficiently by small, fragmented, and rapidly aging part-time farms. This defective production structure was brought about and then maintained by an agricultural support and protection regime, in the context of which rice has been overproduced at high political and economic costs, and despite Japan’s outstanding dependency on imports of virtually every other food. This structure has not only catered to the interests of producers themselves; it has also paved the rise of their main interest group - the organization of agricultural 
cooperatives (Nokyo or JA, Japan Agriculture) - into an economic and political giant; and mobilized rural support for the post-war dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Over the past 20 years, however, gradual changes in the agricultural support and protection regime have stripped small rice farms of unconditional support and undermined Nokyo’s power position - albeit without solving the structural crisis of farming. As of 2013, more than 60% of the workforce is above 65 years old. Successors for their tiny, scattered plots are hard to find, so that more and more land is falling idle.
Amidst this crisis, collective cultivation in so-called hamlet-based collective farms (shuraku eino, hamlet farms) (re)gained relevance for farm households across Japan, with a particular boom after a subsidy reform in 2007. Hamlets — in official parlance referred to as ‘agricultural communities’ (nogyo shuraku) — are ‘natural settlements’ of typically several dozen households, which for many centuries have been the core social unit in rural Japan. Based on interviews and participatory observation in several agricultural communities, this chapter analyses hamlet-based collective farming as an interface between agricultural politics and norms and practices from a seemingly distant agrarian past. In the contested debate over the future path of Japanese agriculture, the comeback of the hamlet as an ‘agricultural production unit’ in the 2000s reflects a political defence strategy that aims to legitimize ongoing agricultural support for rice farmers by tapping into notions of national identity and rural nostalgia. In a sense, this strategy mirrors the ongoing efforts to establish the social practice of ‘eating Japanese’ as a core element of Japan’s national identity: without Japanese ingredients, washoku (Japanese cuisine) is a hollow concept. From this perspective, constructing a link between washoku and national identity also means that the objective to support the crisis-ridden agricultural sector becomes a matter of saving Japan. This symbolic inflation is by no means coincidental. For the incumbent defenders of agricultural support and protection, the promotion of ‘eating Japanese’ is a way to shield the support for ‘producing Japanese’ from public criticism and political pressure. Yet, there is more to hamlet farming than the political exploitation of rural nostalgia. A look at the local level reveals that ‘traditional’ agrarian norms and practices are best understood as adaptive resources in an increasingly hostile political and socio-economic environment. The ability to adapt hamlet norms and practices to a changing political context shapes small farmers’ continued access to state support. Furthermore, for local governments and the local branches of Nokyo, (re)enforcing the hamlet as an agricultural production unit is also a matter of exercising and conserving power over the local agricultural sector.
-  MAFF, ‘FY (2013) Annual Report on Food, Agriculture, and Rural Areas in Japan’.
-  The English term ‘community-based farm co-operatives’ is sometimes used for the samephenomenon, see for example, Kimura and Martini, ‘Evaluation of Agricultural Policy Reformin Japan’, 62.
-  E.g. Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan.
-  Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan.