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Hamlet Farming as a Defensive Political Instrument

The inclusion of hamlet farming into ninaite policies reflects the defensive interest of the incumbent profiteers from the old agricultural support and protection regime. The notion that changes in the subsidization system and a rationalization of the small-scale production structure of rice farming in particular are unavoidable has become consensual in Japan. Yet, LDP farm politicians, Nokyo, and the MAFF have also been eager to formulate the concrete trajectory of these changes in a defensive way. Promoting hamlet-based farming has been an ideal tool for this objective. Collective farming leads to fewer, but larger entities, which in fact can have significant benefits in terms of efficient land use and exploiting economies of scale. On the other hand, hamlet farms also keep a large number of small rice farms under the umbrella of state support. Further, the inclusion of hamlet farming into the ninaite concept has enhanced the prospects of these policies to bring about presentable results of ‘structural reform’ without principally challenging the farm household as the mainstay of Japanese farming. As of 2014, almost 50% of the total arable land is in the hands of ninaite farms.[1] A significant share of this structural change is related to the increase in hamlet-based farming.[2] Nokyo is particularly eager to promote collective cultivation. As I will point out in more detail below, hamlet farms tend to remain closely tied to the cooperative organization personally, economically, and organizationally, whereas individual entrepreneurial farmers tend to pursue their own ways of cultivation and marketing outside the tight cooperative corset.[3]

Importantly, the hamlet is by no coincidence the social unit upon which the political defence strategies of the incumbent profiteers from the ‘old’ agricultural support and protection regime are built. Hamlet-based farming resonates strongly with the institutional history of rural Japan. Farmers and policymakers alike perceive the hamlet as the ‘natural unit’ for agriculture- related cooperation. Far beyond agricultural production matters, the hamlet itself is symbolically charged as an idealized rural home place (furusato). The traditional rural settlement tends to be imagined as a holdout of ‘authentic’ Japanese culture,[4] pressured by modernization - indeed westernization - and thus in dire need of ‘revitalization’.[5] Both by Japanese and Western scholars, the hamlet has often been presented as the nucleus of Japanese culture and society as a whole - central, for example, to the notion of the ‘Japanese’ way of consensual, unanimous decision-making, or the notion of valuing solidarity over individualism.[6] Such accounts have been frequently criticized as the raw material for cultural nationalism, if not chauvinism.[7] Yet, as Japanese farming is under pressure to be deregulated and rationalized, conservative defendants of the ‘old’ agricultural support and protection regime have still been able to tap into the symbolic value of the hamlet in their own political interest, eventually creating a legitimate channel of continuing state support for small-scale, part-time rice farming households. The ‘Japanese’ way of consolidating farmland, in this sense, is shaped by its rural traditions, which stands in contrast to market-based capitalist expansion. The promotion of ‘producing Japanese’ is closely linked to the promotion of ‘eating Japanese’. In both cases, cultural-nationalistic sentiments and rural nostalgia are employed to defend agricultural support and protection against the forces of ‘liberalization’ - albeit on slightly different levels. The promotion of ‘eating Japanese’ has been identified as a means to justify support and protection for domestic producers in general.[8] The inclusion of hamlet farming in national ninaite policies represents a second line of defence, that is, the protection of the ‘traditional’ household-based production structure against other forms of agricultural production. At first glance, this recursion to rural traditions seems anachronistic. The Japanese countryside has actually long lost its agrarian character, and in the course of the postwar shift from ‘rural Japan’ to ‘regional Japan’, hamlets themselves have diverted from the idealized cooperative agricultural communities of the past.[9] Nevertheless, the hamlet farming boom reaches beyond the ‘defensive’ exploitation of rural nostalgia by policymakers. The next section thus takes a closer (i.e. local) look at the role of hamlets and ‘traditional’ agricultural norms and practices.

  • [1] Kobari, ‘Nochi chukan kanri kiko shonendo ni okeru nochi shuseki no doko’.
  • [2] Primaff, Shuraku eino batten shita no nogyo kozo — (2010) sensasu bunseki.
  • [3] Maclachlan and Shimizu, ‘Local Innovation and Interest Representation’.
  • [4] See, e.g., Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing.
  • [5] Knight, ‘Rural Revitalization in Japan’.
  • [6] This argument has been most prominently made by Nakane, Kinship and EconomicOrganization in Rural Japan; Nakane, Japanese Society.
  • [7] Yoshino, Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan. The emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘unanimity’ in analysing hamlet-level decision-making is criticized in detail by Marshall, CollectiveDecision Making in Rural Japan.
  • [8] On raising the food self-sufficiency ratio as a way to justify further producer support, see GeorgeMulgan, Japan’s Agricultural Policy Regime, 118. Similarly, the Japanese ‘local production, localconsumption’ movement was ‘hijacked’ by the MAFF and Nokyo, also using nationalist symbolism, see Jentzsch and Walravens, ‘Consuming the Nation’.
  • [9] Kelly, ‘Regional Japan’; Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan.
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