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.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Farmer Seiju Sugeno leads a local nonprofit in Nihonmatsu City. The group was set up to make effort to revitalize their region, which has faced issues of depopulation, aging, and employment. Local farmers bring their vegetables, rice, and fruits to the farm stand.
Takehiko Kambayashi
Sadaji Asawa, Otama Village's mayor, says that rural communities are "collapsing."

If you were kind, you could call the main street of this rural county town "sleepy."

You could also call it dead. There was barely a pedestrian to be seen on a sunny Thursday afternoon this week, and just one old man scanning the shelves at a 7-Eleven.

Young people are fleeing towns like this all over Japan, and their parents have all but given up trying to make a living from their farms.

"It is no exaggeration to say that rural communities around here are collapsing," says Sadaji Asawa, a local mayor.

The mood is bleak, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party – which has held almost unbroken power for over half a century – is about to suffer the consequences, to judge by all the opinion polls in the runup to Sunday's parliamentary election.

Those predict a landslide victory for the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), not least because in key electoral battlegrounds around the countryside, farmers are – for the first time in a lower house election – turning to the opposition for succor.

Like almost everywhere else in Japan, farms in this region of emerald rice paddies at the foot of forested hills are tiny family affairs. With farm prices low, they barely keep their owners alive.

Many have given up. The number of farming households in Nihonmatsu has fallen by half since 1960, according to local government figures. Only 353 families now live entirely by farming – 10 times fewer than 45 years ago.

"They can't eat if they don't have a job somewhere else," says Minoru Kamino, head of the town government's Commerce and Industry department.

No farming in children's future

Masao Karino's aging parents do nothing but farm, and Mr. Karino, who heads a local branch of Japan Agriculture, the cooperative that acts as the nation's top farm lobby, helps them out at weekends.

"But I can't ask my children to take the farm over when I stop," he says. "It just doesn't offer a stable income."

His children have left Nihonmatsu already, like half the families in this district who used to plant rice, vegetables, watermelons, and other crops.

The other half has found jobs with the light industrial firms that have established themselves in town, but that is cold comfort today. The recession has hit export-oriented companies making auto parts and electronic goods especially hard; five applicants chase every job that comes up here at the moment, and many of those still in work are on three-day weeks.

The town is trying to attract new employers in the alternative energy and medical-equipment fields. But the current economic climate is hardly encouraging, says Mr. Kamino, the town official, "and we also have not done enough to increase local peoples' skill levels."

The town is caught in a vicious circle. As citizens left in search of better opportunities, and the population aged, for example, the local movie theater ran out of customers, and closed. That complicates Kamino's task of attracting new investors. "Who wants to come and live in a place with no cinema?" he asks.

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.

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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