Author: Yusaku Yoshikawa, JIN Corporation
One of the biggest challenges for agriculture in Japan has been its chronic worker shortage. The industry’s jobs-to-applicants ratio is higher than other sectors and during the COVID-19 pandemic it has been a struggle to secure enough workers.
In the latest 2020 Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) expressed concern about the country’s weakening agricultural production base due to a rapid decrease in farmland and the number of self-employed farmers.
Still, questions remain around how Japan’s agricultural labour shortage is playing out on the ground and what policy solutions might be pursued.
The number of Japanese farmers has been decreasing sharply. The 2020 Census of Agriculture and Forestry in Japan reported that Japan had 1.52 million agricultural workers. In 2015, the number of agricultural workers was 1.97 million, representing a 20 per cent decline in five years. In 2020, agricultural workers consisted of 1.36 million self-employed farmers, and 160,000 employed farmers — defined as those who work for other farmers for more than seven months of the year. This number is less than one third of what it was in 1980 and continues to decline by 50,000 people per year.
The number of farming households has fallen 20 per cent in 10 years, from 2.2 million in 2010 to 1.7 million in 2020. Yet moves to upsize farms has been slow and some farmlands of over 400,000 hectares are being abandoned. Among these 1.7 million farming households, 40 per cent, or about 700,000 of them are relatively small-scale farmers. They possess less than 3000 square metres of operating, cultivated land and often produce below 0.5 million yen (US$44,000) in agricultural product sales.
Japan’s low rate of food self-sufficiency (37 per cent on a caloric basis and 66 per cent on a production value basis in 2021) is often presented as a case in point to justify the need for more farmers. The MAFF basic plan, which aims to ‘improve the nation’s capacity for food self-sufficiency and establish its food security’, typifies this argument. To fulfil these objectives, it aims for a food self-sufficiency rate of 45 per cent on a caloric basis and 75 per cent on a production value basis by 2030.
To achieve this goal, MAFF promised to commit to several measures, including smart agriculture. For example, the use of technologies like drones, robots and a public platform for agricultural data collection have been promoted to save labour and cut production costs.
Some also argue that Japan needs more young self-employed farmers to secure the agriculture industry’s long-term sustainability. Japan’s food production is extremely dependent on elderly workers. The average age of the country’s self-employed farmers is over 65. While approximately 53,700 self-employed farmers joined the industry in 2020, only one third of them (18,400) were below 49 years old. A high turnover rate for young newcomers in the industry is a common phenomenon. As a result, the proportion of young farmers has been decreasing.
To promote the active participation of young people in the industry the Japanese government should create a supportive environment for prospective farmers. Becoming a self-employed farmer requires big investments, especially in terms of funds, farmland and skills. In 2017, Japan’s National Chamber of Agriculture reported in a survey that it took at least two years for almost half of new farmers to start their own farm. The average start-up cost for farming was 5.7 million yen (US$50,000), which is similar to the country’s average annual income for males.
Japan’s agricultural labour shortage also hits farmers hard during the labour-intensive harvest season, when part-time workers are often difficult to find. Because of this, many Japanese farmers are trying to secure foreign workers. COVID-19 made this problem worse by preventing foreign workers from entering the country.
Many foreign agricultural workers in Japan are recruited under the government’s Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). TITP trainees — who tend to come from countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and China — numbered approximately 350,000 in 2021. Still, the TITP has been criticised as merely a means for farmers to access cheap labour despite the program’s initial aim to foster capacity development among trainees. To attract more foreign workers, improving their treatment, particularly their salary and working conditions, should be of the utmost priority.
Japan’s agricultural worker shortage stems from a number of problems in the Japanese labour market and demographic situation, each of which require different solutions. Given this situation, there is no one simple fix. Instead, the government must take a comprehensive approach towards the issue through smart agriculture, measures to support for young self-employed farmers, the upsizing of farms and measures to improve conditions for foreign agricultural workers.
Yusaku Yoshikawa is an aid consultant at JIN Corporation.
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