Sun & Star: Betting on the Farm: Institutional Change in Japanese Agriculture

Food is often something Americans take for granted; our grocery stores are fully stocked (pandemic aside) and we have a diverse array of ecosystems across the continent perfect for agriculture. However, for the island nation of Japan, agriculture is slowly becoming one of the most pressing issues in Tokyo. Patricia Maclachlan came and spoke on her new book, Betting on the Farm: Institutional Change in Japanese Agriculture, which delves into the history of Japanese agriculture, the co-op organization known as JA, and how current trends are shaping the industry.

JA is a three-tiered network with roots at the local level and powerful organizations in the thick of Tokyo bureaucracy. It started after World War II as a democratic and economic organization managed by members and meant to distribute benefits to farmers. However, JA is very different from other agricultural co-ops around the world; for one, they are a monopoly in Japan and have multifunctionality that eclipses any other co-op in the world. Although JA does provide supplies, markets, credit, social welfare programs, and other benefits to farmers, the organization has come to serve its own economic interests, not the farmers’. Due to a tightly institutionalized partnership with the LDP, JA and its farmers have enjoyed artificially high rice prices, a lack of domestic competition, and protectionist policies toward trade. This relationship began to change once the 1994 electoral reform reduced the power of farmers’ votes. Along with electoral reform, farmers’ demands began to change and diversify in the face of a further globalized world and increased international competition. Not to mention the aging population in Japan has led to a successor crisis for farmers.

Maclachlan then delved into two case studies of local-level co-ops that have adapted to changing market reforms. Although these are but two examples of successful co-op strategies, they both have some qualities in common: they are well-endowed with natural resources and market opportunities, have leaders within the co-ops willing to take initiative, and can organize and mobilize on a grassroots level. The first co-op, JA Saku Asama, diversified its product by growing high-quality vegetables and the second co-op discussed, JA Minami Uonuma, diversified within rice by branding and marketing high-quality household rice. Although there have been some government reforms in agriculture, Maclachlan theorizes that reforms are likely to continue regardless of government involvement as local co-ops slowly adapt to changing market forces both within and outside Japan.

What reforms are desired for Japanese agriculture? According to Maclachlan, a bad policy she hopes will change with the new Kishida administration is the subsidization of feed rice. In Japan, feed rice is low-quality rice grown for cattle; it is a waste of valuable (and scarce) land, unsustainable, and prevents farmers from diversifying. However, an example of a good subsidy Maclachlan believes will help Japanese farmers is to produce food set to be exported. In addition to lowering trade barriers, this policy can aid farmers and help boost profits while also breaking into new markets overseas.

Watch the full video below:


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This post was written by Keely McNeme ’23. She is triple majoring in Political Science, Corporate Communication and Public Affairs with a concentration in Political Communication, and International Studies with a focus on Asia and a minor in History. She also does research alongside Professor Takeuchi and is very involved in the SMU Libraries, where she participates in the Library Student Advisory Board and works in DeGoyler Library of Special Collections.