State Support for Rice Farmers - From 'Sacred Ground' to a Contested Sphere

Japan’s notorious agricultural support and protection regime has long rendered part-time rice farming a lucrative household strategy. Since the early 1960s, the LDP came to employ state control over the rice price as a political instrument for redistributing the benefits of economic growth to every corner of the country. Closely related, generous investments in the peripheral infrastructure and the mechanization of farming reduced the labour input for wet-paddy cultivation and created direct and indirect opportunities for off-farm employment, for example, in the mushrooming construction sector. Consequently, many farm households switched to part-time rice farming, which hampered the development of large-scale industrial farming. As a coupling link between the LDP and rural voters, Nokyo - the main executive agent behind the state procurement system - used its ubiquitous membership base to become an effective vote-gathering machine for campaigning (LDP) politicians. Deeply entrenched in the post-war political economy, this regime proved enormously solid, despite the tremendous fiscal, political, and economic costs of inefficient, excess rice production.[1]

By the mid-1990s, however, reforms had become virtually inevitable. The international pressure to reduce border protection and trade-distorting state support became manifest when Japan joined the WTO in 1994.[2] [3] Domestically, agriculture lost its post-war nimbus of being a ‘sacred ground’,11 as the public became increasingly critical of excess state support, and the 1994 electoral reform at least gradually reduced the pressure on politicians to cater to the army of subsidy-dependent small rice farmers. Japan embarked upon an ongoing agricultural reform process, which has been shaped by intense contestation between incumbent profiteers of the old regime — Nokyo, LDP ‘farm politicians’, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) — and market-liberal reformists from business and politics, resulting in an inconsistent and at times contradictory path.[4] The boom of hamlet- based farming in the 2000s represents a focal point of this political contestation over the pace and the direction of institutional change in the agricultural support and protection regime.

  • [1] For detailed accounts on the post-war agricultural support and protection regime, see forexample, Bullock, ‘Nokyo’; George Mulgan, The Politics of Agriculture in Japan; Sheingate, TheRise of the Agricultural Welfare State.
  • [2] George Mulgan, Japan’s Agricultural Policy Regime; Davis and Oh, ‘Repeal of the Rice Laws inJapan’.
  • [3] Robert Bullock, ‘Redefining the Conservative Coalition’, 194.
  • [4] George Mulgan, Japan’s Agricultural Policy Regime; Godo, Sayonara Nippon ndgyd.
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