Even as Japan balks at trade concessions, farmers move on
When it comes to trade policy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces a choice between the fears of Japan's ageing farm lobby and the hopes of suburban families lined up here at a nearly 20-metre long meat counter in a mall showcasing Australian beef. A shopper browses packs of meat products at a supermarket in Chiba, east of Tokyo February 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Yuya Shino
When Aeon Co set out to open a flagship shopping mall just outside Tokyo, it wanted the scale to dazzle urban shoppers. The three-month-old Makuhari New City mall in Chiba is almost four times larger than the Tokyo Dome, a 55,000-seat stadium in the heart of the capital.
At the supermarket inside the mall, the daily specials include beef shipped direct from Aeon's own feed lot in Tasmania, an arrangement that reduces prices for consumers and skirts Japan's politically strong agricultural co-operative system that many see as an outdated relic of the country's revival after World War Two.
Even as Japan rebuffs international pressure to scrap import tariffs on food items, including beef, some Japanese farmers are stepping outside the heavily protected co-operative system anyhow, worried that the biggest threat is not trade liberalization but Japan's rapidly ageing population and its changing tastes.
"I don't think Japanese agriculture will collapse because of the participation in TPP," said Toru Wakui, a northern Japan rice farmer, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. "If it happens, it will be from an internal collapse."
This quiet but significant shift suggests Japan's tough TPP stance aimed at protecting the country's farmers is losing some of its foundation as more commercial pressures come to bear in Japan and farmers and their buyers work around an inflexible traditional system.
The average Japanese farmer is 66 years old, the amount of farmland has dropped by a quarter over 30 years and Japan's food self-sufficiently ratio - the share of consumed calories made at home - has dropped to 39 percent, the lowest among developed economies.
Tastes are also changing and moving away from polished rice, protected by an import tariff of up to 778 percent. For example, the amount the average Japanese family spends on bread surpassed rice for the first time in 2010, government statistics show.
Meanwhile, the average Japanese farm is just two hectares (five acres) in size - about 1 percent of the size of the average U.S. farm. The amount of Japanese farmland that has gone uncultivated is now as large as the cities of Tokyo and Osaka combined. Government subsidies account for over half of farm incomes, the third-highest ratio in the OECD behind Norway and Switzerland.
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