- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

YAMANASHI, Japan

Hiromi Otake used to spend her weekends as a hobby farmer in the peach orchards of central Japan.

After retiring, she moved there to take up farming full time, joining a group of 24 women to set up an Internet farmers market selling high-quality produce online.

Not long ago, Japan’s retirees were better known for shopping in Hawaii, relaxing in hot springs or toting cameras on group tours overseas.

But a rapidly shrinking economy, plus a series of food-safety scares triggered by contaminated imports from China, is beginning to rekindle a long dormant attachment to the land - a part of Japanese culture that had faded with postwar industrialization.



“Most of the farmers here are aging, and there are very few young men. I don’t want these beautiful peach orchards to turn into a wasteland. Once it turns to a wasteland, it’s very hard to bring it under cultivation,” Mrs. Otake said.

Farmers who are 60 or older constitute about 70 percent of Japan’s farming population of 3 million, according to the government’s Statistics Bureau.

Most live in rural areas, from which young people have migrated to cities. As a result, agricultural growth has been sluggish for decades, and government officials fret that the nation’s farms now produce just 40 percent of the food the Japanese eat.

“It is one of the most pressing national-security issues,” said Akio Fukuda, a member of the Japanese parliament. “We certainly need to boost our food self-sufficiency.”

He urged the government to support both large-scale and small family-owned farms as one way to battle a recession, in which the Japanese economy shrank at an annual rate of more than 12 percent in the final three months of 2008.

“I believe rebuilding the agricultural industry could reinvigorate local economies,” Mr. Fukuda said.

Recent scandals over contaminated dumplings, beans, milk and other products from China have also helped rekindle interest in farming in a nation known for its zeal about food safety.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Mrs. Otake and her fellow female farmers in Yamanashi. They launched their Internet shopping mall last month.

The women, most of whom had never turned on a computer until recently, joined an intensive training program on information technology (IT) and business last year, which was supported by Microsoft.

Armed with new IT skills, one of the women, Kazumi Sueki, said she plans to move with her husband and daughter to her aging parents’ farm, where they have grown peaches and grapes for half a century.

“I have come to believe that farming is very important though I had never thought about doing it,” said Mrs. Sueki, who majored in architecture in college.

Mrs. Sueki said she plans to expand the farming into other products such as raisins.

“It is important to keep our farms afloat,” said Mrs. Sueki, who also sells building materials.

In addition to retirees moving back to the land, Japan is experiencing a surge in hobby farming.

Yoshitaka Shiraishi runs a family farm in Nerima, not far from the skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo. He rents 350 square foot plots for $300 a year to about 200 weekend warriors.

They include homemakers, college students, professional cooks and former corporate executives.

In their oversize gardens, they grow a variety of vegetables such as spinach, potherb mustard, Japanese radish and lettuce.

Across Nerima, an area well known as a center for growing Daikon (Japanese radish), more than 1,500 people began their hands-on farming this year under the instruction of a group of local farmers, including Mr. Shiraishi.

“People end up eating what they grow,” he said, adding that he was glad to see the surge of interest by people in their 30s and 40s.

“Once I checked the meaning of the word ‘hyakusho’ [peasant] in a dictionary. It read ‘hick’ or ‘ignorant,’ ” said Mr. Shiraishi.

“People are now telling me that a new era belongs to farmers like me,” he said. “Many Japanese people used to think of playing golf in Hawaii as high status. Now people want to farm.”

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