April 16, 2009
For Young Japanese, It's Back to the Farm
By HIROKO TABUCHI
YOKOSHIBAHIKARI, Japan A motley group of unlikely farmers descended on the countryside here one recent Sunday, fresh towels around their necks, shiny boots on their feet.
"This is harder than it looks," said Tatsunori Kobayashi, a spiky-haired janitor from Tokyo Disney Resort, as he tromped through a mustard spinach patch with a seed planter, irregular furrows stretching out behind him.
He is part of Japan's 2,400-strong Rural Labor Squad, urban trainees dispatched to the countryside under a pilot program to put Japan's underemployed youth to work tilling its farms.
Started last month as part of Prime Minister Taro Aso's stimulus plans, the program stems from growing concern about both the plight of Japan's younger workers and the dismal state of farms. In a play on words, the squad's name in Japanese Inaka-de-hatarakitai is also its rallying cry: "We want to work in the countryside!"
The predicament of Japanese in their 20s and 30s dates back to the lost decade of the 1990s, when many failed to find good, stable work. Today, a disproportionate number endure low-wage jobs a potential portent for America's students and first-time job seekers plunging into a shallow job market in the United States.
As the Japanese recession has worsened, younger workers have taken the brunt of wage cuts and layoffs, especially in manufacturing. Now the government views the slump Japanese exports fell almost 50 percent year-to-year in February as a chance to divert idle labor to sectors that have long suffered from worker shortages, like agriculture. Many young Japanese, for their part, have shown a growing interest in farming as disillusionment rises over the grind of city jobs and layoffs. Agricultural job fairs have been swamped with hundreds of applicants; one in Osaka attracted 1,400 people.
"Young people want jobs, and farmers need the extra hands," said Isao Muneta, an agriculture ministry official who coordinates the 1.3 billion yen ($13 million) program, part of a larger stimulus package. "It's the perfect match."
Whether it will save Japan's deteriorating economy is something else. "Rural communities could benefit from an influx of young people," said Masashi Umemoto at the National Agricultural Research Center. "But it's unrealistic to look to agriculture as a solution to the country's unemployment problems."
He added, "There aren't enough farming jobs."
Like the French and the British, whose industrial societies have deep (if distant) rural roots, the Japanese have long romanticized life in the countryside. Only 4 percent of Japan's labor force works in agriculture, but a reverence for the country's rice-farming heritage is strong. Japanese children grow up with warnings not to waste a single grain of rice, out of respect for farmers' labor. In an annual ritual, the Japanese emperor makes an offering of rice harvested from paddies within the palace grounds to Shinto deities. And in international trade talks, rice remains the most sensitive crop for Japan.
Beneath this romanticism, however, is a stark reality. Japanese farming is a picture of inefficiency, and the rural work force is graying. A decline in rice prices has hit farms hard only the largest farms still turn a profit from harvesting rice, forcing farmers to take on extra jobs. The farms most desperate for workers do not have the means to pay for new recruits. Agricultural jobs pay as little as $1,500 a month and are often seasonal.
Overgrown plots abound in Yokoshibahikari, a town of 26,000 about 43 miles east of Tokyo.
"We're all old folk and thankful to have young people come help us," said Hitoshi Suzuki, 57, and head of a cooperative of family farms that share equipment to reduce overhead costs. (One of the cooperative's farmers is 83.)
Rural communities themselves effectively shut out new blood by making it difficult for outsiders to set up their own farms, says Takayuki Yoshioka, a coordinator at the nonprofit organization that runs the Yokoshibahikari program. People with no local links who want to buy farmland are subjected to a vetting process by local farming committees that can take years.
"I believe the possibilities are limitless in agriculture," said Mr. Yoshioka, who is interested in starting his own farm. "But there are also big barriers."
Shinji Akimoto, who until recently worked in information technology, is not intimidated.
Fearful of constant staff cuts as business deteriorated, Mr. Akimoto, 31, quit his job last month and days later started training in Yokoshibahikari. His three-day, government-financed training program has been a succession of whirlwind lessons in rice and vegetable planting, cleaning pig sties and feeding cattle.
"I had nothing much to lose, and in times like these, I felt I needed to learn to make my own living," he said. He chuckled and twirled a finger in the air. "Did you know pigs really do have curly tails?"
Mr. Akimoto's team of 10 is a hodgepodge: the Disney janitor, a recently laid-off landscape artist and several college students. They all get 7,000 yen a day, about $70, and free food and board.
They all shared a common complaint: there was no convenience store nearby for drinks and snacks. One trainee persuaded a farmer to lend him his light truck, so he could get cigarettes.
"My friends think I'm crazy for coming here," said Tomoka Inoue, 20, a management major who said she was widening her job search to include farming. "But I think people are becoming more aware of where our food comes from, and I want to get more involved with that."
Experts say the program's wider economic impact will be limited in the face of the severe challenges facing Japan's economy: gross domestic product shrank at an annualized rate of 12.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and unemployment is at a three-year high of 4.4 percent.
But the government is going ahead with plans to begin yearlong farm intern placements later this year. Increasing agricultural employment is part of a new $154 billion stimulus package that Mr. Aso announced last week.
Mr. Kobayashi, the janitor at Disney, says his time as a trainee has helped him decide he wants to take up farming leeks, this town's main crop. He intends to take another week off to train with a local leek farmer, Yoshinori Yamazaki, who is looking for someone to take over his farm.
"This is just too perfect," Mr. Kobayashi gushed. He said leeks were his favorite vegetable, and he had read that they were easy for beginners to grow and bring in a stable income.
But Mr. Yamazaki, the leek farmer, was skeptical. "You can't learn farming in just a year, or even several years. It's a lifetime profession," he said. "I worry this is just a fad. I'm worried that when the economy picks up, they'll all flock back to the city."