Japanese agricultural policy in disarray

Sota Watanabe, a local farmer, explains how a landslide destroyed much of his property at Kanuma City, Tochigi prefecture, Sept. 15, 2015.

Sota Watanabe, a local farmer, explains how a landslide destroyed much of his property at Kanuma City, Tochigi prefecture, Sept. 15, 2015.

Australia & Japan in the Region

Volume 11, No 11, November 2023

Author: Masayoshi Honma, University of Tokyo

Under former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, Japanese agriculture was a target for regulatory reform. There was an especial focus on reforming the organisation of agricultural cooperatives (JA).

This was during the time when globalisation was still in progress, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) being negotiated — which JA strongly opposed. Japan stubbornly maintained high tariffs on important agricultural products, such as rice, and refused to liberalise agricultural markets to protect domestic farming. But the world was in an era of globalisation that sought liberalisation of finance and investment beyond just expansion of international trade. Though the United States dropped out, 11 countries reached an agreement on the TPP — now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — and Japan ratified it despite the resistance of JA.

The CPTPP gives Japan opportunities to expand exports of agricultural products by reducing or eliminating tariffs on member countries. The Abe administration advocated ‘aggressive agriculture’ and set a goal of 1 trillion yen in annual agricultural exports. This goal was achieved in 2021. Agricultural exports include not only agricultural products, but also processed foods, which account for 40 per cent of this total. It is natural for Japanese agriculture to seek markets overseas and shift to export promotion at a time when the domestic market is shrinking due to the declining birthrate and aging population.

The Abe administration then embarked on domestic agricultural reform. Abe emphasised regulatory reform, particularly targeting JA, which has long been protected by regulations and exceptional legal treatments. JA is a political body to support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and is given government subsidies in exchange for delivering farmers’ votes to LDP. JA also plays a leading role in implementing agricultural policies from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. This relationship between the three is called the ‘iron triangle’.

The Abe administration tried to break the iron triangle to attract urban voters, who favour globalisation. Though more fundamental issues, such as farmland regulations, remain for agricultural reform, JA reform was a political strategy. Targeting JA was a symbolic, fighting pose against traditional political stakeholders — JA is a well-known opponent of globalisation. It was successful to some degree in that the government demonstrated a seriousness about general regulatory reform.

Yet after Abe was assassinated, agricultural policy has turned in a conservative direction. One reason is that agriculture is also supposed to adopt environmentally friendly production methods to prevent global warming. Internationally, organic farming is promoted as a method to reduce the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. In Japan, a policy target is set to expand organic farming to 1 million hectares — a fourth of total farmland — by 2050, despite Japan currently only having 25,000 hectares of organic farmland. This policy is an imitation of the European Union’s ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy.

Another reason why agricultural policy is trending conservative is changes to Japan’s national security conditions following the Ukraine crisis. Such crises tend to heighten general concerns about food security because of increased prices of not only food, but also inputs for agricultural production. Costs of agricultural production have increased due to the soaring price of feed grains and fertilisers. Above all, there are concerns about stable food supply — more than 60 per cent of Japan’s food is imported.

In response to recent changes in social and economic conditions, the government is supposed to revise the Basic Law on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas during the 2024 Diet session. The main objective is to strengthen food security, both in normal times and urgent situations. In urgent situations, measures shall be taken to prevent food hoarding and restrict distribution, while the food self-sufficiency rate shall be increased in normal times. The revision also suggests a new, numerical target for a food self-sufficiency ratio that reflects the procurement status of fertilisers and other import-reliant items.

It is also necessary to enhance agricultural productivity with efficient use of agricultural resources, such as farmland, machineries, fertiliser and chemicals. This will lead to an improved food self-sufficiency ratio. It will require regulatory reform — for example, allowing stock companies to own farmland, which promotes large-scale operations and investment in agriculture. Even in organic farming, the participation of stock companies is effective.

Yet in discussions to revise the Basic Law, there were no voices on this necessary regulatory reform. Rather, the ‘iron triangle’ has been revived. Traditional farmers’ protection is strengthened through price policies and subsidies to protect JA’s members.

Japanese agriculture is under pressure to simultaneously achieve both environmental sustainability and food security. But agricultural policy remains in disarray.

Masayoshi Honma is Professor at the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, The University of Tokyo.

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