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Rural Japan warms to opposition as election looms

Long a ruling-party stronghold, small towns and farming communities are disillusioned by their waning political influence – and are willing to try new leaders.

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Surrounding villages are in a similar bind. Nihonmatsu district has hardly any kids. In fact, they make up only about 12 percent of the population – not much more than half what you would find in a typical US town.

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That means that primary schools have merged or closed. "How can a village without a school attract people to live there?" asks Mr. Asawa. "What happens is that even more people leave."

Local people often blame the government for their ills, demanding more protection against cheaper imported farm produce, more tax revenues, and more subsidies.

"Many people in the provinces are asking, 'Is the government telling us to die?' " says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based independent political analyst.

Party in power doesn't deliver

Certainly a lot of them have stopped expecting anything from the current government, despite the Liberal Democratic Party's traditional role as the farmer's friend. Matters have become so grave in Nihonmatsu that the sitting member of parliament, LDP member Takumi Nemoto, is by no means sure of beating a 29-year-old female city slicker, Kazumi Ota, who moved into the district simply to contest his seat for the DPJ.

"The LDP doesn't keep its promises," complains Mr. Karino, the farmer. But he doesn't expect much from a DPJ government, either. "Both the big parties have made consumers their priority, not farmers," he says. "Until that changes, we don't expect the farming business to grow."

Some farmers are not waiting for a change in government policy to improve their lot.

Seiju Sugeno, for example, who farms rice, tomatoes, and radishes with his wife and parents, gathered a group of neighboring farmers and merchants together five years ago to launch a farm shop.

Selling fresh fruit and vegetables, pickles, baked goods, and other locally processed foods, the shop attracts visitors from as far away as Tokyo on weekends, Mr. Sugeno boasts. And some local families have doubled their income by selling direct to customers rather than wholesale, he says.

"What Japanese farmers need to do is to grow a wider range of produce," he argues. "It is not only possible to replicate this project elsewhere, it is absolutely necessary."

But can it last? Sugeno says he hopes his eldest son will take over the farm from him, "and I've explained to my children what I am doing and how hard local people are working at this."

His son has already started a career as an engineer, though. Will he really go back to the land when Pa retires? Sugeno smiles wryly.

It is, he concedes, "unlikely."

What are Japan's parties promising in this potentially game-changing election? Click here for a briefing on the issues.

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