Modern Japanese Agriculture in Light of Kunio Yanagida's Vision for Agricultural Administration Reform

Senior Fellow, RIETI

Kunio Yanagida, referred to in the title, is none other than that Kunio Yanagida (1875-1962), the father of Japanese folklore study and author of Tono Monogatari ("Tales of Tono"). Some readers of this column may be wondering what the relation between Yanagida and agriculture is, but agriculture and agricultural administration were his first profession and first field of study. In 1890, upon graduating from the Tokyo Imperial University (now, the University of Tokyo) Faculty of Law, Yanagida entered the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce (the predecessor of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry). Indeed, he was the first law degree holder to have entered the ministry. Because of his own family's experience of misery, Yanagida aspired to solve the poverty of agricultural villages and farmers.

A miracle in the history of Japanese economic thought

Up until then, studies on agricultural villages had been conducted based on materials authored by historians. But such resources were scarce and did not provide sufficient information. Yanagida therefore turned to traditions and customs that had been passed down among the people to gather materials for his study on agricultural villages. This is how Japan's folklore study originated. While what had started as a study on agricultural administration eventually led to a folklore study, Yanagida spent only a few years writing about agricultural administration. Yet, in this very short period of time, he published a remarkable vision for reforming agricultural administration, which Dr. Seiichi Tobata praised as a "miracle in the history of Japanese economic thought."

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), there were two lines of thought concerning agricultural administration. One line of thought was the one that promotes large-scale farming. Kaoru Inoue, who became agriculture and commerce minister in 1888, stood by this idea and insisted that Japan, like the United States, should nurture large-scale farmers. On the other hand, those hoping to maintain the status quo naturally advocated small-scale agriculture. The latter group overwhelmed the former in terms of the number of supporters.

Although Yanagida stayed with the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce for only two or three years, he energetically expounded his ideas in writing, in which he called for policy to nurture middle-scale - instead of large- or small-scale - farming. Thus, Yanagida raised an objection against the then-prevailing idea - based on agricultural fundamentalism and widely supported by scholars and bureaucrats - that called for protecting small-scale farmers on the premise of maintaining the parasitic land owner system of the time. What he had in mind were not "very small farmers" such as those typically seen at the time, but farmers with farmland of 2 hectares or more, a scale that is large enough to enable farmers to support their life solely by operating their farmland as if operating an independent corporation. Referring to the phrase "Japan is an agriculture-oriented country," Yanagida said that Japan must become a country where the phrase can be taken as meaning a "country with flourishing agriculture" and not a "country filled with beleaguered small farmers." In 1961, Japan enacted the Agricultural Basic Law with an aim to improve productivity and promote structural reform of agriculture. Takekazu Ogura, a former top official of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and architect of the law, retrospectively said:

"It [Yanagida's idea] was a proposal to improve the structure of agriculture from the viewpoint of farm size. An idea very similar to the concept of 'economically viable farming' provided for under the Agricultural Basic Law had been discussed by him more than half a century before. All we should have done was model it after Yanagida's 'policy to nurture middle-scale farmers.' Regrettably, however, none of us [at a research committee on basic issues concerning agriculture, forestry and fisheries] were aware of its existence."

It is said that the idea of "middle-scale farming," which was aimed at enabling farmers to support life solely on farming operations, led to Yanagida's folklore concept of "ordinary people," which is also likened to the old Chinese verse "How can the power of the emperor have anything to do with me?" meaning that whoever the emperor may be life goes on just the same for ordinary people.

In the era in which Yanagida lived, tenant farmers paid rent in kind whereby half the crop harvested in rice fields was brought before landowners. These parasitic landowners attempted to increase their income, not by improving productivity, but by having rice supply restricted so that they could sell rice at higher prices. Specifically, they lobbied for the restriction of rice imports from Korea and Taiwan, which were Japanese colonies at the time. On the pretext of strengthening national defense, they insisted that Japan should be self-sufficient in food. Countering the idea of imposing protective duties on agricultural products, which was being discussed at the time, Yanagida insisted that agricultural reform, not protectionism, was what was needed. He said it was undesirable to protect high-cost agricultural production. Although some people pointed to the need to ensure self-sufficiency in food supply for the sake of national defense, Yanagida said that lower rice prices - even by means of allowing foreign rice into the Japanese market - were better for Japan, considering impacts on the household budgets of working people.

He was concerned that Japan's agriculture - because of its structure characterized by the dominant presence of very small farmers - may be left behind the world's agriculture. In order to improve the agricultural structure, he said that the Japanese government should not restrict the outflow of the working population from rural areas to urban cities. He insisted that what the government should have been doing instead was taking advantage of the reduced number of farming households to promote the enlargement of farming scale. This is exactly what the Agriculture Basic Law called for half a century later. (Unfortunately, however, agricultural administration in reality moved in a direction contrary to the spirit of the Agriculture Basic Law. The government tried to increase farmers' income - not by reducing costs through productivity improvement and scale enlargement - but by raising the so-called "political price of rice," a government-guaranteed rice price for farmers thus called because it was often used to garner farming votes for ruling party politicians. This is the same as how landowners had tried to raise rice prices in Yanagida's time. Does this mean that the structure surrounding agricultural administration has not changed between then and now?)

Yanagida also criticized the in-kind rent system for tenant rice farmers, which was serving as the root cause and power source for landowners' lobbying activities, insisting that the system be replaced by one under which tenant farmers pay rent in money. Such an argument naturally faced a strong backlash from landowners. Given the situation at the time, where tenant farmers' status was extremely low and landowners were synonymous with agricultural forces, Yanagida's argument was nothing but a "lone cry in the wilderness" (as Seiichi Tobata put it). Yanagida left the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce but his thoughts were inherited by Tadaatsu Ishiguro (1884-1960). Ishiguro, who eventually became vice minister for agriculture and commerce in the prewar period and then served twice as agriculture minister, came under the strong influence of Yanagida though their activities at the Kyodokai, a folk culture study group led by Inazo Nitobe, agronomist and internationally-minded educator.

Tadaatsu Ishiguro, the man who succeeded Yanagida's thought and carried out agricultural land reform

Ishiguro began to take an interest in the problem of tenant farming in 1907 after listening to Yanagida's lecture on the customary practice of paying rent in kind. Ishiguro devoted himself to improving the status of tenant farmers under the landlord system where more than half the crop yields could be taken away as rent. The reason for such low status of tenant farmers lies in the treatment of tenancy right in the Civil Code of the time. The original Civil Code - which is often referred to as "Boissonade Civil Code," named after its drafter, Gustave Boissonade, and was greatly influenced by the French Civil Code - defined tenancy as a real right that supercedes an obligatory right. The law antagonized landowners. Yatsuka Hozumi, who was among the leading jurists at the time along with his elderly brother Nobushige Hozumi, also attacked the Boissonade Civil Code. "With the emergence of the Civil Code, gone is the sense of duty and loyalty," he said. Consequently, the original Civil Code - enacted but never implemented - was replaced by the revised Civil Code drafted by Nobushige Hozumi, under which tenancy was defined as a right that cannot be claimed against the new owner of land in the event of change in ownership. (There is a source of law that says sale of land shall transcend the tenancy of the land.) Furthermore, the revised Commercial Code also made it easy for a landowner to unilaterally cancel or refuse the renewal of a tenancy contract. All this put tenant farmers in an extremely vulnerable position. Disputes between tenant farmers - who were imposed outrageous rent in kind and exposed to the constant threat of cancellation - and parasitic landowners who leeched their tenant farmers began to occur frequently and grow serious from around the mid-Taisho Period (1912-1926). The number of tenant disputes increased from 408 in 1920 to 6,824 in 1935.

It is quite ironic that Ishiguro, who was related to the Hozumi brothers (Nobushige Hozumi was Ishiguro's father-in-law), had to struggle against the Commercial Code. But Ishiguro, as a division director in charge at the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, did draft a tenant farming law that called for strengthening tenant farmers' right to cultivate. Certain members of the constituted authorities, who were holding the rein of power, however, denounced Ishiguro's move as violating the Maintenance of Public Order Law, while landowners mobilized political pressure to hamper his attempt. In the end, all Ishiguro managed to do was to have the Tenant Farming Arbitration Law enacted for facilitating arbitration in case of tenancy disputes and to launch a project to promote small-scale landowning farmers. The tenancy arbitration system, which was realized by the enactment of the Tenant Farming Arbitration Law, functioned as an institution to protect the rights of tenant farmers through the operation of the law under Ishiguro's initiative. However, there was a limitation as it was just a procedural law, not a substantive law. Kojiro Serizawa, who was then working under Ishiguro, was dismayed to see how little could be done by so much effort and resigned from the ministry to become a novelist. Even after that, Ishiguro continued his struggle toward the enactment of a tenant farming law and a farmer-owned land law, but each time his attempt was blocked by the Imperial Diet, which was dominated by legislators backed by landowners.

When the postwar farmland reform was completed, a newspaper reporter asked Ishiguro about his view on the new direction of Japan's agriculture. Ishiguro was speechless for a while. When he finally opened his mouth, he said, "As you asked, it just dawned on me that we had never deeply thought about such a thing." The landlord system was so unassailable that how to make a scratch on the solid wall was as much as Ishiguro, as an agriculture bureaucrat, could think about and it never occurred to him to consider what to do once the wall was gone. This is an episode that shows how enormous the wall was and just how Ishiguro was preoccupied with breaking down this wall.

"Sound agriculture" that could not be realized by farmland reforms

The prewar agricultural administration was a history of resistance against politically powerful landowners and the mission of agriculture bureaucrats was to liberate tenant farmers from the landlord system and thus to increase food supply to the general public. Amongst all, the realization of a system to pay rent in money, which Yanagida strongly advocated, was a policy issue of the utmost importance toward establishing tenant farmers' rights. It was not until the first round of farmland reforms, led by Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries Minister Kenzo Matsumura and Hiroo Wada, director general of the Agricultural Policy Bureau at MAFF, that such a rent payment system materialized.

To date, however, a total of 2.3 million hectares of Japan's farmland - which by far exceeds the 1.94 million hectares of land that had been transferred to the ownership of tenant farmers under the postwar farmland reforms - has been converted to other uses or ruined, while Japan's self-sufficiency ratio in food supply has dropped to 40%. Is this what Yanagida and Ishiguro aspired for? What was underlying Yanagida's efforts, with regard to agricultural problems, was the question as to why Japanese farmers were kept in such poverty. However, it must have been beyond his imagination that Japanese farmers and farming villages would become affluent while agriculture declined.

In reality, farmers and farming villages grew affluent, but highly productive, sound agriculture, such as that aspired to by Yanagida and the Agricultural Basic Law, has never materialized. Liberated farmers became new landowners and subsequently gained substantial assets by selling their land or converting the land to residential and or other nonagricultural uses. The average household income for small-hold farmers, who are typically part-time farmers with other sources of income, has exceeded that for wage earners. Also, the agricultural structure dominated by small-hold farmers, which was established as a result of the postwar farmland reforms, was further reinforced by the subsequent government policy to artificially raise rice prices, thereby hampering the scale enlargement and development of Japan's agriculture. I wonder what Yanagida and Ishiguro would say in the face of this reality.

June 29, 2004

June 29, 2004

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