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'Adaptive Traditions' as the Informal Foundation of Hamlet-Based Farming

Viewed in the context of the developments outlined above, the rise of hamlet-based farming in the 2000s illustrates the adaptability of hamlets and ‘traditional’ agricultural norms and practices; and the interest of Nokyo in (re)enforcing hamlets as agricultural production units. ‘Traditional’ norms and practices serve as the foundation for contemporary hamlet farms. The most commonly reported motive for creating hamlet-based farm cooperatives is the notion of protecting farmland as a collective resource (i.e. prevent it from falling idle or being rented out or sold to ‘outsiders’), which clearly resonates with the institutional history of farmland being subject to (informal) hamlet control.[1] As the agricultural workforce is rapidly aging, collective farming can be a means of conserving farmland (cutting grass and irrigation issues, kusakari, sui kanri). In contrast, renting land to ‘outsiders’ is perceived as bearing the risk of leading to ‘disorder’.[2] Moreover, hamlet-based farms incorporate long-established practices of decision-making and selecting leaders from the hamlet - for example, creating ‘study groups’ (kenkyukai) to prepare difficult decisions and a ‘screening board’ (senkoiin) to select leaders.[3]

Interestingly, evidence from Hikawa suggests that hamlet farms are not only built upon certain agricultural norms and practices, but also contribute to their revival under new terms of trade. In Hikawa - like in other localities throughout Japan - ‘traditional’ forms of hamlet-based mutual support had become rare with the onset of highly subsidized part-time farming. But while ‘traditional’ cooperation patterns might have been muted for decades, they have still remained in the ‘tool kit’ of hamlet life, and have been reinstalled in a different context as the normative and organizational foundations of hamlet-based collective farms. As positive models for behaviour that hamlet members can resort to, they support agricultural cooperation when national policies set incentives to do so. Contemporary hamlet-based farms in Hikawa have reintroduced ‘traditional’ practices like female work groups, joint lunches on the fields, and skill-based labour division among hamlet members to everyday hamlet life. Kinship, neighbourhood, as well as ‘modern’ non-agricultural social ties (sports teams, festivals, travel groups) are the ‘seeds’ for reviving the norms and practices of agricultural cooperation.[4] Many hamlet farms that were formalized in the 2000s could also build on older (sub-hamlet-level) cooperation patterns, even though such patterns may have been neglected for some time.

Some observers have criticized the increase in hamlet farms in the mid-2000s as ‘policy-reactive’ (seisaku taioteki), which is described to be essentially different from (and inferior to) ‘natural hamlet farming’ (honrai shuraku eino)?2 In contrast, I argue that the observation that hamlets adjust the extent and the scope of their cooperation patterns to changes in the political incentive structure speaks for the vitality rather than the decline of ‘traditional’ norms and practices. Founding a hamlet-based collective farm is a form of productive exchange, that is, ‘the exchange process through which two or more parties organize and combine their resources to produce some good or service not (as cheaply) available to any separately’.[5] [6] Arguably, engaging in a wide variety of ‘productive exchanges’ has characterized Japanese hamlets throughout their history.[7] As recent agricultural policies have become more exclusive, state support has indeed turned into a resource ‘not as cheaply available to any separately’. Importantly, the ability to adapt hamlet norms and practices to new forms of agricultural cooperation is not only observable as a reaction to the 2007 subsidy reform. Older hamlet farms have also been ‘policy-reactive’. For example, the oldest hamlet-based farms in Hikawa were founded over two decades ago in the early 1990s. One of them is widely recognized as one of the earliest ‘model cases’ for hamlet-based collective farming in Japan. The farm was founded on the basis of public funding for a large-scale land improvement project in the context of early ninaite policies.[8] Following the same logic, even older patterns like joint machinery investments and ‘block rotation’ under the rice acreage reduction programme were ‘policy-reactive’ as well. The ability to adapt to changing formal rules is thus a longstanding quality of hamlets.

This said, forming a hamlet farm is still not an option equally available to all hamlets. Taking advantage of state support as a collective requires the activation of informal hamlet resources that not every hamlet is able - or willing to - bring about. ‘Traditional’ hamlet norms are contested - they have been coexisting and often clashing with the principle of individual property throughout the post-war period.[9] As landowners pass away, move away, give up farming for health reasons, and sell or rent out their land, (re)enforcing agricultural cooperation patterns has only become more difficult. This development proceeds unequally across and even within regions. As a result, two neighbouring hamlets may even differ in terms of their attitudes towards farmland and agricultural cultivation, which affects how and by whom the land within the hamlet’s boundaries is used.[10] The varying normative configuration of hamlets thus ultimately shapes how state support is distributed across the countryside. The internal configuration of hamlets, however, is not the only factor for this distribution. As the next section will show, if and to what extent hamlets (re)invent themselves as agricultural production units is also shaped by their embedding in the local administrative and cooperative structures.

  • [1] Fieldwork; evidence from other scholars supports this argument, see, e.g., Kitagawa et al.,Nogyo, mura, kurashi no saisei.
  • [2] Interview with hamlet farm leader in Hikawa.
  • [3] This was reported by several hamlet farm leaders, as well as members of the agriculturaladministration in Hikawa. On the (historical) internal structure of hamlets see, e.g., Marshall,Collective Decision Making in Rural Japan; Fukutake, Rural Society in Japan Shoji, Nihon nosonraku to shutai keisei.
  • [4] Participatory observation in several hamlet farms in Hikawa.
  • [5] Toyama, ‘Shuraku eino’.
  • [6] Marshall, Collective Decision Making in Rural Japan, 17.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Jindai, ‘Shimane-ken’.
  • [9] See, e.g., Noriaki Iwamoto, ‘Local conceptions of land and land use and the reform of Japaneseagriculture’. The process of collusion between landowners and politicians gaining the upper handover ‘traditional’ hamlet norms has been connected to farmland loss and the structural problemsof farming in Japan in general, see, for example, Godo, ‘The puzzle of small farming in Japan’;Godo, Sa.yona.ra Nippon nogyo.
  • [10] Interview hamlet farm leader in Hikawa.
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