Reconsidering Land Reform and
Agricultural Policy in Japan

This essay seeks to add land relations with a particular emphasis on the consequences of Japan’s post-1945 land reform program to the more recent discussion on ‘human security’ (or non-traditional security concerns) in East Asia. There are four reasons for developing this perspective, two of general importance and two of specific relevance to the ideas outlined here. First, Japan’s comprehensive security policy since the 1980s under the initiative of then Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki has included food security as one of its non-traditional elements (Akaha, 1991). Second, food security for major food importing countries was negatively affected by the 2007-2008 global economic crisis, compounded as it was by a commodity supply shock in food staples, among other resources. South Korea and China, as a result, were convinced to seek access to primary arable land resources outside of their sovereign territories, which included South Korea’s ill-starred attempt to procure half of Madagascar’s available farmland (Deininger, 2010; Zoomers, 2011; Alden Wily, 2011).

In other words, given climate change predicaments and global population projections, resources and thinking will rapidly have to be dedicated to squaring the circle on food production and supply as a factor in peace and human security. This is made all the more imperative in Asia given that food security is treated as a national rather than a regional locus of responsibility, and that several East Asian countries are experiencing rapid and unprecedented population decline, while others are as yet steadily growing.

The two specific reasons relevant to the ideas outlined here are that Japan’s land reform program has been widely described as a success and as a model to be emulated by other countries with skewed land relations, such as the Philippines (Hayami et al, 1990; Fuwa, 2000). What puts this into perspective is the final point, one that was presumably not closely considered in the 1980s and 1990s. Japan’s existing rate of farmland abandonment and the advanced average age of the farming population predicate the possibility of a crisis for which there is no obvious solution, conditions that shortly will affect Taiwan, South Korea and parts of China, among potential others. The idea here is that Japan’s land reform phenomenon was constitutive not of a real solution in ‘human security’ terms but as an element in long term calcification with respect to arable land resources and agricultural society. New ways of looking at the issue and considering alternative strategies are more urgently required than they might seem.

The Agricultural
“Iron Triangle”

<span style="color: #ffffff;">A Japanese rice field in Nara Prefecture</span>
A Japanese rice field in Nara Prefecture

The first point regarding Japan’s land reform program is that an original reform initiative, passed in the Diet in early 1946, was deemed insufficiently rigorous by the external occupying authority, the GHQ because it had entailed only 900,000 hectares owned by 100,000 landlords. The second action, an independently formulated GHQ initiative, was imposed on October 11, 1946 on a society still struggling under adverse post-war conditions. These measures were universal in coverage; they made few exceptions (except, for example, in bigger-sized allotments in Hokkaido); the purchase terms were crude, unfair, and took full advantage of post-war inflationary conditions (one hectare of rice paddy could be obtained for 13 packs of U.S. cigarettes); and the program made extraordinary use of over 400,000 unemployed bureaucrats to administer the program and ensure that it was fully implemented with immediate effect. In practice, the program decreed the compulsory acquisition by the state of a) lands owned by absentee landlords; b) tenanted lands in excess of roughly one hectare; and c) owner-occupied lands in excess of three hectares (except for Hokkaido). Local agricultural committees empowered to process and implement the system were significantly weighted in favour of the new owner-beneficiaries, and it is in this point that the seeds for the long term calcification of Japanese agriculture become apparent (see, for example, Kawagoe, 1999; Shoji, 2011; Ramseyer, 2012; Kusumoto, 2008; Kiyohide, 2008).

Although by 1949, 1.76 million farms had been transferred to 4.7 million new owners, the process was deemed not fully secured. Additional legislation in the form of the 1952 Agricultural Land Law concreted particular terms in order to prevent a return to landlordism. It fixed both the definition of owner-cultivator and the market terms for the transfer of farmland. Farmers could sell to other farmers but not to corporations. Mobility of agriclutural proprietors was hampered because residence relocation automatically invoked absenteeism and hence mandatory purchase by the state. In addition, the Law entrenched the administrative powers of the local agricultural committees.

This would in time prove significant for what Mulgan (2005) describes as the “iron triangle” nexus of the LDP, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and the agricultural cooperative federation. In other words, voting behavior, subsidies and official protection and marketing were mutually assured, beneficial and reliable. To some degree, this relationship helped keep the LDP in power in Japan for over 55 years until 2009 despite the increasingly serious distortions to incentives in the sector as a whole (see Kawagoe, 1999; Shoji, 2011; Lipscy & Scheiner, 2012; Nakato, 2011; Anderson, 2009).

Looking Back to Look Forward

The underlying problems that this mutually beneficial set of relations obscured include the following: according to Matsubara and others (ISFJ, December, 2010), productivity in agricultural output peaked in 1984 at JPY 11.7 trillion and as at 2008 was JPY9.1 trillion. Concomitantly, land under cultivation peaked in 1961 at approximately 6.1 million hectares. By 2009, this area had been reduced by 24 per cent to 4.62 million hectares with an increasing rate of abandonment in the past two decades: in 1985 abandoned farmland constituted 2.9 percent of all arable land. By 2005, this figure had increased to 9.7 percent.

Furthermore, the average age of farmers in 2010 was 65.8 years with little prospect of their heirs taking over the farm work. Reasons given for abandoning farming included i) the shortage of adequate labour (45 percent), ii) decreasing output and productivity (22.8 percent), iii) loneliness (11.4 percent), iv) poor soil and the lack of chemical input materials (9.8 percent). Abandonment was preferable to seeking gains from selling the land on to other farmers or committing to land conversion because of the bureaucratic difficulty of getting the appropriate permission to do so. The governor of the prefecture must sign off on all land conversions to uses other than agriculture with the additional consent of the minister of agriculture for land areas greater than four hectares (see, among others, Higuchi, 2009; Hashizume, 2009; Mitsuyoshi, 2010).

To compound the problems above, section 7, article 2 of the Agricultural Land Law stipulates the conditions circumscribing the legitimacy of the term ‘farmer’. Corporations entering the sector must furnish an agriculture development plan and even corporate officers must be engaged in agricultural activity for at least 60 days per year, while the company should earn no less than 50 percent of its income from agriculture. However, at least 21 percent of such new-entrant companies are provided as being from the construction sector (Higuchi, 2009), which suggests the possibility of land speculation as a prime motivation. Takahashi (2009) indicates that since the 1960s, at a rate of 33,000 hectares per year, as much as 1,234,900 hectares of prime farmland has already been converted to urban and peri-urban use.

These are not superficial problems. They have their roots in idealized solutions imposed on Japan from external authorities to satisfy particular political needs of the time in which they were formulated; and they have the capacity to produce long term problems domestically and regionally. What needs to be considered is the extent to which land reforms and the structures needed to secure and maintain them contribute over time to paralysis and long term decomposition in the sector.

What this essay aims to highlight is that not only did the 1946 land reform and the 1952 Agricultural Land Law formidably change agrarian relations in Japan, and thus set into motion a set of serious consequences that have national and regional implications for human security, the process also framed how land issues and Japan’s agricultural conditions may be discussed. Overcoming this bias and bringing land reform phenomena and food security in as more centrally relevant aspects of human security initiatives is a matter of urgency.


Mark Stevenson Curry


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