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Why are young Japanese moving away from agriculture sector?

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
June 21, 2024

Young people are lured to the cities with the promise of more money and entertainment. This in turn leaves traditional farms short of workers — and Japan potentially short of food.

People plant rice seedlings at a paddy field in Namie, a Fukushima Prefecture town near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant
Japanese farming has taken a hit as young people seek work elsewhereImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

Keiko Ishii admits to being more than a little relieved that her youngest son decided to swap the bright lights of Tokyo to return to his home town and take over the running of their farm, making him the fifth generation of the family to make a living from the soil.

"He went to Tokyo for a few years to work and I was worried that he might not want to come back, but his grandmother had always talked to him about life on the farm and it looks like that sank in," 75-year-old Ishii told DW.

"He said he missed the countryside and we were glad when he told us that he wanted to come back," said Ishii, who has lived on the farm in Tochigi Prefecture for the last 42 years, since marrying her husband, Yoshiyuki Ishii, now 77.

"He has come back with his wife and two children and, little by little, we are teaching them about how the farm works."

Takashi Ishii's decision has delighted his parents, but it is unusual here.

Farming is not a popular career move for many young Japanese, who have become accustomed to the convenience and 24-hour-a-day lifestyle of the nation's cities, while others are put off by the idea of long hours in all weathers, physically demanding work and modest pay.

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Japan's farmers age

Inevitably, as young people largely fail to follow their parents onto the land, farmers are getting older and, when they retire, their land is often left to go wild.

The government's annual report on the state of the industry, released on May 31, showed that around 1.16 million Japanese were engaged in agriculture in 2023, down dramatically from 2.4 million people as recently as 2000. Of that total, just 20% were under the age of 60.

And those statistics underline an even greater worry – Japan has to import the majority of the food that its inhabitants consume and the nation's food self-sufficiency ratio stands at just 38%. The concern is that a conflict in the South China Sea or in waters surrounding Taiwan —  critical sea lanes for imports to and exports from Japan —  could seriously disrupt food supplies and quickly prompt shortages.

Successive Japanese governments have tried to tackle this problem. The Basic Law on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas was passed in 1999, in part calling for the food self-sufficiency rate to be raised to 45% by 2030. However, it appears unlikely that figure will be reached, particularly if young people continue to turn their backs on the countryside.

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The Ishii farm is in the town of Otawara, about 90 minutes north of Tokyo by train. This part of Japan is famous for its rice crop, while the Ishiis also grow barley and vegetables that are sold through the local branch of the Japan Agriculture Cooperative.

At just 6,250 square meters (67,000 square feet), the farm is extremely small by European and North American standards. This is typical in Japan, but it also makes farming less efficient. It is also hard work, Ishii said.

‘Early starts, long hours'

"Farmers need to get up very early and the mornings are the busiest, especially if you are also trying to get the children off to school at the same time,” she said. "Summers are also getting hotter so it is best to get as much work done as possible before it gets too hot. The hours are long and there is always something that needs to be done."

Rice planting gets underway in paddy fields with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains in Hokkaido Prefecture
Farming is seen as an old person's occupationImage: Naoki Haranaka/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

In addition to the long hours and physically demanding work, earnings are typically below the average income of 6.2 million Japanese yen (€36,500, $39,000).

"It is not a popular occupation due to the low and unstable income," Kazuhiko Hotta, a professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture, told DW. "The national and local governments are implementing a variety of policies to encourage people to become farmers, including assistance with living expenses until a new farmer settles in, arranging for the lease of farmland and increasing opportunities to learn new skills. But so far, the effects have not been effective."

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Future farming

Hotta is also concerned about Japan's "very low self-sufficiency rate" as stable supplies are critical to the survival of the nation, he said. Yet he remains optimistic.

"As many current farmers age and retire, new farmers will step in and there will be an increase in large-scale corporate management," he said. "That will enable a transformation to a more efficient form of agriculture, although this will take time."

Despite the challenges, the Ishii family has no intention of giving up their land.

"It's hard work, of course, but there is no better job for someone who likes to be outside, who like being surrounded by nature," Keiko Ishii said. "I never look at the clock to see if it's time to go home and it's good to have the flexibility of being your own boss. I think those are some of the reasons my son has come back here."

Edited by: John Silk

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Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea