Since arriving in Tokyo over two months ago, I've been struck by the number of 'farms' scattered throughout the city. These lots, ranging in size from a quarter to half acre, overflowing with produce ranging from corn and potatoes, to grapes and fields of blueberry bushes. In a city where it seems every square inch is optimized for maximum functionality (remember, this is the city of capsule hotels where people crawl into cubby holes for the evening), how are farms- micro as they are- able to maintain their land base? How are they able to keep their farms alive?
It seems it's a matter of policy... and peer pressure.
Pitchforks might have felt a little heavier on May 29th 2014 the day after Bill 24 was passed by BC legislature which enabled protection of farmland placed in the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) over 35 years ago. The struggle for farm land preservation isn't local to BC, rather it is one being faced by farmers globally as evident by the mounds of articles posted on farmlandgrab.org.
And this leads to the last part of this policy that I'm going to address in this post: how one can 'become' a farmer eligible to purchase land in Japan. My Japanese isn't sophisticated enough to decipher legal-ese, so have had to depend on friends on the farm and other conversations I've had at the university to piece this part together. It seems that if a new farmer asserts themselves as wanting to farm, they can start their farm on leased land. Once they have been in operation for a couple of years, they can plead their case to the municipal land authorities to be granted 'farmer' status at which point they can be eligible for purchasing land. As an interesting side note on land rights, it seems that a farmer on rented land actually has quite a bit of power when it comes to what happens on that land. It seems, there is a time period after which a person that is utilizing land 'owns' half the rights of what happens to that land, thus if the land owner decides they want to sell the land, the farmer on the land needs to either be a) bought out or b) is eligible for half the proceeds of the sale. Each municipality has different regulations as to how long a farmer needs to be on a piece of land to be eligible for these land rights, but it definitely changes the power dynamic of land ownership!
Here in Japan, agricultural land is not only protected, but the tax incentives for farmers to keep their land in production is far greater than what one would be able to earn if you were to try to develop the land for non agricultural purposes (apartments, parking lot, business). Here's where things get a little Japanese: there is no official parameters for 'agricultural activity', thus, a farmer can net a deficit for every year of operation and so long as it 'looks' like they are farming, can continue to be taxed at the lower farm land tax rate. I could see this leading to countless problems in BC: Yet this is where things differ culturally from how things work in Canada. There is a sense of pride and neighborhood watch in Tokyo that exerts an even greater pressure on farmers to keep their farms meticulously weeded, highly productive and whose products must taste superior to the farmer down the street. This competition is most evident when looking at the various fields of corn production littered around my neighborhood- those that invested in plastic hoop tunnels for getting their corn an early jump start have ears as long as my hand, where on other plots the plants are barely waist high. Unless I'm completely mistaken as to the price of corn here in Japan, I can't see the financial justification of investing in plastic for corn production, but can only surmise that the satisfaction of knowing that you have the first corn on the block is high enough to push this rather interesting farming practice forward.
One other interesting aspect of this agricultural land policy, is that ownership of land can not transfer from farmer to non-farmer. This has interesting repercussions for young people interested in farming, but whose family don't own agricultural land. In essence, you have to be considered a 'farmer' in order to be eligible for purchasing agricultural land in Japan. Thus no matter how cheap agricultural land may be outside of the city, there is still a barrier for new farmers to gain entry into land procurement.
I've tried to do my research to fact check this post, but wasn't able to find a lot of information in English. As I continue my studies I'm sure I'll be able to glean more of the Japanese required to decipher government policy. For now, this is mostly anecdotal, supplemented with a few English articles on the topic that I've found through the Tokyo Foundation: http://www.tokyofoundation.org
Emi Do: Exploring ideas in small scale agriculture: feasibility, viability, relevance and resilience.