TSUKUBA, JAPAN — FROM a small office in a big field, Takeshi Tsukada leads a group of some 300 self-described ``fighting farmers'' from around Japan who have stepped outside of their country's mainstream agriculture. They have a tough row to hoe. The post-war political structure that has kept the Liberal Democratic Party in power for 45 years has curried the votes of farmers with government purchases of their main crop, rice, and costly subsidies. Rural farmers enjoy a disproportionate share of voting power in Japan.
The ``fighting farmers'' deliver produce straight to consumers and use few chemicals in growing crops. The fact that they have dared to be independent and enterprising has caught the wary eye of others in Japan's well-protected agriculture system.
``A revolution is slowly and finally coming to Japanese agriculture,'' Yoshikazu Kanoh, president of the Research Institute on the National Economy, and author of ``Agricultural Renaissance.'' He has found at least 30 small groups of reformist farmers.
At best, says Mr. Tsukada, only 1 percent of Japanese farmers take an active, reformist approach. ``The other 99 percent do farming reluctantly, feeling that, since they were born to a farming family, they just follow tradition,'' he says.
Mavericks who challenge such tradition have been more often hammered down like protruding nails. Farmers in Japan have had ``an ideology that everyone should be treated equally and competition should not be introduced,'' says Mr. Kanoh.
The ultimate test of the old-time ways will be a challenge to Japan's prohibition against rice imports, expected in 1991 as the United States moves closer to retaliating against the import ban. In anticipation of eventually being forced to open its rice market, the government has experimented with limited competition in domestic markets and tried to modernize farming practices.
Reformers are not waiting. They have seen how Japanese beef and citrus-fruit growers have had to become competitive in the past two years to cope with import liberalization for those products (a result of US pressure).
``What concerns me most is that Japan may have no farmers in 10 years,'' says Tsukada.
The number of full-time farmers has fallen by half in the past quarter century, hitting 603,000 last year, or less than half of 1 percent of the total population. And over half of these farmers are aged 65 or over. Only 2,100 high school graduates entered the farming profession in 1989.
``To make younger people feel like succeeding in our business, we must make agriculture lively,'' he says. Farmers must know their customers better and shed a dependence on government protection, and the control of powerful farmer cooperatives, called Nokyos.
Often in league with government interests, the national Nokyo has sapped the initiative of most farmers by providing cheap loans, insecticides and fertilizers, and a complex distribution network, says Tsukada, once a local cooperative worker himself.
THE movement of reformist farmers was sparked in the early 1980s by public criticism of farm subsidies and government advice to farmers over the past couple decades that they move out of rice. Also, higher incomes among Japanese has led to a demand for higher-quality foods.
``Following government policies is effective only until a country reaches a certain economic stage,'' argues another reformer Toru Wakui, director of the Ogata Village Akita-Komachi Producers' Association in Akita prefecture. He admits that his group sells its special brand of rice on the black market, which is estimated to be about 10 to 20 percent of Japan's total rice market.
``We do our activity at our own free will,'' says Mr. Wakui. ``[National] Nokyo has been aristocratic.''
He says that direct sales to consumers will be one way for farmers to cope with foreign rice. ``When liberalization comes, who will help us?'' he questions. ``It will be the consumers.''
Many reformist farmers faces subtle pressure to not buck the system. Wakui's delivery service, for instance, was stopped and the makers of milling machines were pressured not to sell to him. For, Tsukada, pressure came from a government official probing to see if he was selling on the black market.
Chief spokesman Noriaki Takano of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, which supervises the national Nokyo, denies such harassment.
``We have no intention to exclude or deny those people,'' Mr. Takano says, adding that Nokyo itself wants to provide consumers with better products.