A Dwindling Farm Labor Force in Japan Needs Increased Government Support

Rating C

“We’re going home.” said the couple, already over 75 years old, after seeing the typhoon’s forecasted path and wind direction map on a TV news program. They said they needed to return to their rice fields and farm immediately to adjust the water and deal with the strong winds. This was only 15 minutes after they came to my parents’ house to deliver watermelons. It is easy to forget that after 25 years of leaving the countryside and moving to Tokyo, Japan’s rural population is shrinking and aging very fast, and those working in agriculture are a big part of this trend. As demonstrated in Post 60, the number of agricultural workers in Japan has plummeted from 36 million to 4.9 million between 1955 and 2015. The area of rice production, a significant crop in Japan, has declined by more than 30% in the 30 years between 1990 and 2020, as resources were shifted to the industrial sector in postwar Japan. In addition, the declining birthrate of Japanese society as a whole has had an impact, accelerating the aging of the agricultural workforce: the average age of agricultural workers in 2020 is 67.8 years old, with those aged 65 and over accounting for 70% and with those aged 75 and over accounting for more than 30% of the total (MAFF, 2021).


Table 1. % of the agricultural population by Age group

  ~ 34 35 ~ 44 45 ~ 54 55 ~ 64 65 ~ 74 75 ~
2005 3.0% 5.1% 12.7% 21.7% 36.8% 20.6%
2010 2.8% 4.0% 9.2% 22.5% 32.5% 29.0%
2015 2.8% 4.2% 7.2% 20.9% 33.6% 31.3%
2020 2.7% 5.0% 6.9% 15.9% 37.9% 31.7%

Source: Adapted from MAFF (2021)


The couple’s son never took over farming. He chose to work in the business sector after finishing school some 30 years ago because of uncertainty about the future of agriculture and low expected income. In recent years, changes in farm management, such as farmers expanding the size of their farms, subsidies, and rising prices for agricultural products, have narrowed the gap in expected income between the two. However, the instability inherent in farming and the low average number of holidays still provide little incentive for young people to join farming.

According to a survey conducted by Kyodo News (2022) among agricultural departments in Japan’s 47 prefectures, 46 prefectures indicated that their agricultural products are “affected” by climate change. Specific phenomena noted included high temperatures, torrential rains, increased local precipitation, droughts, etc. As discussed in Post 66, the average temperature increase in Japan has exceeded the global average, and changes in precipitation and temperature have been significantly more extreme since the 1990s. The trend is expected to accelerate.

In rice, Japan’s main crop, the occurrence of “white unripe grains,” which turn cloudy white, and “cracked grains,” which crack and split easily, as well as insect damage, have caused a decline in quality and yield, which are considered to be the effects of climate change (MAFF, 2022).

Figure 1.

“white unripe grains” (left) and “cracked grains” (right)

Source: MAFF (2022)

On the other hand, farmers are already promoting thorough water management, timely harvesting, and the introduction of high-temperature tolerant varieties (12% of total crop area) (MAFF, 2022). Originally, rice varieties have been cultivated in different regions of Japan and have been improved in each region. Different rice varieties can be grown in Okinawa Prefecture, where the annual average temperature exceeds 20°C, and in Hokkaido, where the annual average temperature is below 10°C, making growing rice all over Japan possible. Although the existence of rice varieties and eating quality that can be lost due to climate change is a problem, at least from the perspective of the required amount of rice harvested, it is a problem that can be technologically addressed, given Japan’s rice cultivation and breeding techniques. As for crops other than rice, although the optimum production area for each crop is changing, many farmers should be able to cope with this problem by changing the crops they grow.

Japan’s low food self-sufficiency rate, discussed in Post 60, and the aging of the agricultural sector, discussed in this issue, are both structural problems in Japan. While there are technical solutions to climate change, such as changing varieties, these structural problems have been discussed for decades. Still, no drastic measures have been taken, reducing the sustainability of Japanese agriculture and individual farmers. Structural solutions are needed to attract and introduce youth and technology to rural areas and agriculture to cope with the growing impacts of climate change and other agricultural and social challenges.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Japan Country Manager Takeda Kazuya.

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