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Hamlet Farming and Adaptive Norms and Practices

Picturing hamlet-based farms as an expression of ‘traditional’ rural social organization certainly misses the far-reaching socio-economic and political changes that have shaped rural Japan’s institutional landscape since the post-war years. At the same time, contemporary hamlet farming can hardly be discussed outside the context of the hamlets’ institutional history. I argue that the key to understand the recent boom of hamlet farming is to regard both hamlets themselves and ‘traditional’ agricultural norms and practices as adaptive resources in the contested sphere of changing agricultural politics. This requires a brief discussion of the hamlet as a longstanding, but by no means static institution.

The Hamlet in the Course of Time

The institutional history of hamlets is complex and changeful. What a hamlet was, what it is today, and how it relates to other forms of rural settlements and/or (historical) administrative units is a frequent source of misunderstandings, which is especially true when the term hamlet is used in relation to the term ‘village’ (mura). When I talk about contemporary hamlets, I refer to the Japanese term nogyo shuraku, which the Ministry of Agriculture defines as follows:

A rural society based on agriculture, located within the area of the municipality. Hamlets [agricultural communities] are rural societies that once evolved naturally. With households tied together by territorial bonds and kinship, they form basic entities of social life that have been taking different forms of group and social relations.[1]

This definition stresses the character of hamlets as ‘natural settlements’. Until the end of World War II, however, hamlets also served as formal administrative units. The Occupation Regime took this status away. Still, hamlets display a striking degree of continuity. Of the roughly

143,000 nogyo shUraku that the MAFF counted in 1970, more than 95% existed before 1880, and most of them were much older.[2] Most farmers I interviewed in Hikawa Town in (2013) can trace back their family history in their own hamlet over 10 generations and more.

Historically, hamlets are most comprehensively characterized as ‘agricultural production units’, engaging in the necessarily cooperative cultivation of wet-paddy rice.[3] As such, hamlets have created and enforced rules concerning irrigation and land use over centuries. Within clearly demarcated boundaries, hamlet land has been treated as a collective resource exclusively to be used for the benefit of those living in the hamlet.[4] Based on agricultural cooperation, hamlets developed a dense web of rules and practices covering virtually every aspect of everyday life.[5] For centuries, hamlets remained relatively self-contained social units. However, rapid urbanization, agricultural rationalization, and socio-economic differentiation in the post-war era rendered hamlet members less dependent on each other, and less dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.[3] This profoundly affected ‘traditional’ hamlet-level cooperation. An interviewee remembers hamlet life in her childhood:

We took turns in the hamlet. Well, not me, but my mother. I heard stories

about how the fastest people or the most skilled ones got together. The tea

break was held on the paddy field, everybody came together for the break.[7]

According to her and other respondents in different parts ofJapan, such ‘traditional’ hamlet-based agricultural cooperation disappeared around the 1970s. As modern pipeline irrigation became more common, even wet-paddy farming has at least technically become an independent household activity. Yet, although hamlet functions and hamlet life have been changing significantly, hamlets have by no means disappeared as ‘viable social units’ in the post-war era.[8]

This role was reinforced strongly by their (continued) integration in local administrative structures. Post-war municipalities kept relying on hamlets informally as the most convenient ‘channel of administrative communication’, an ‘inexpensive tool for the collection of taxes’, and the ‘instrument for many other administrative activities’.[9] Further, some of the ‘traditional’ norms and rules once created and enforced on the hamlet level became integrated in the emerging regulatory framework of post-war Japanese agriculture. For example, the post-war legislation on land improvement has been reinforcing the role of hamlets as the ‘basic unit responsible for control and allocation of water’.[10] Hamlets were also integrated in the agricultural cooperative organization. Founded in 1947, Nokyo’s local cooperatives incorporated the agricultural divisions (jikko kumiai) that every hamlet already maintained. Hamlet-level institutions thus came to form the bottom level of the cooperative organization, which in the following decades absorbed many of the collaborative tasks that once were governed by hamlets alone.[3] Its embedding in the rural social structure facilitated Nokyo’s role as an executive agent for implementing state policies, and in general has been a major source of the organization’s political and economic power (Fig. 9).[12] [13]

The constituencies of local co-ops and villages and towns have often overlapped, leading to a twofold integration o hamlets and not least hamlet norms within local administrative structures. More

Changes in the numbers of local Japan Agriculture (JA, Nokyo) and municipalities in Japan, 1991-2014

Fig. 9 Changes in the numbers of local Japan Agriculture (JA, Nokyo) and municipalities in Japan, 1991-201444

recently, however, ongoing cooperative mergers and a wave of municipal mergers between 2002 and 2006 have diluted the once comprehensive integration of hamlets within co-ops and municipalities. As municipalities have grown larger and more differentiated, the number of autonomous, mostly rural towns and villages with longstanding, narrowly confined social and spatial boundaries has decreased, arguably pushing rural and remote hamlets further to the periphery of broader constituencies.[14] The social and spatial proximity between hamlets and local governments as well as local cooperatives has thus declined. Further, hamlets have continued to grow less and less ‘agricultural’ over the course of the 2000s. While this does not render hamlets obsolete as an institution, it weakens the links between local co-ops and hamlets, which have already been found to be less stable than in the post-war decades. By 2010, around 73% of all farm hamlets still maintained a jikko kumiai,[15] although some of them also act independently from Nokyo.[16]

  • [1] MAFF, ‘(2010) nen sekai noringyo sensasu kekka no gaiyo’, 157, trans. by author.
  • [2] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan, 77; Jussaume, Japanese Part-Time Farming, 50.
  • [3] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan.
  • [4] Iwamoto, ‘Local Conceptions of Land and Land Use’, 222.
  • [5] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan; Iwamoto, ‘Local Conceptions of Land and Land Use’; Haley,‘Rivers and Rice’.
  • [6] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan.
  • [7] Interview with retired cooperative care worker in Hikawa. Unless otherwise indicated, interviewmaterial was sourced between March and December (2013).
  • [8] Jussaume, Japanese Part-Time Farming, 51.
  • [9] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan, 168.
  • [10] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan, 81; Sarker and Ito, ‘Design principles in long-enduringinstitutions of Japanese irrigation common-pool resources’.
  • [11] Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan.
  • [12] George Mulgan, The Politics of Agriculture in Japan.
  • [13] George Mulgan, The Politics of Agriculture in Japan, 286; MIC, ‘Shichosonkazu no hensen’. Forthe number of local JA in 2014 see JA Zenchu, ‘JA kazu no suii’.
  • [14] For this argument, see, e.g., Koike, ‘Local Government Amalgamation in Japan’; Reiher, LokaleIdentitat und Landliche Revitalisierung, Rausch, ‘The Heisei Dai Gappei’. For the effects ofcooperative mergers, see, e.g., George Mulgan, The Politics of Agriculture in Japan, 288.
  • [15] MAFF, ‘(2010) nen sekai noringyo sensasu kekka no gaiyo’, 17.
  • [16] Interview Professor Godo Yoshihisa, March 2014.
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