As its farmers get too old to till the soil, Japan grapples with a question that many industrialized nations now face: Who will grow our food in the future?

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Introduction: We turn now to Japan, where a rapidly aging population is forcing the country to reconsider the way it feeds itself. Our story is part of “Food for 9 Billion,” a multimedia project that looks at the challenge of feeding the world in a time of social and environmental change. It’s a NewsHour partnership with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace. Tonight’s correspondent is Sam Eaton.

Reporter Sam Eaton: In modern Japan, farming is still very much a holdover from simpler times. Much of the work is done by hand, on small plots of land that have been cultivated by the same families, sometimes for centuries.

But today, Japanese agriculture is at a crossroads.

Japan’s farmers, like 71-year-old Yukinori Mori and his wife, Fukiko, are getting old. And their children and grandchildren are leaving the farms for higher-paying jobs in the cities.

Yukinori Mori: My eldest son is self-employed and my younger one is working in America, so they don’t really need to take over the family farm. But the bottom line is that if they don’t continue on, this household and the farm will be over.

Reporter: Many industrialized countries are losing farmers to old age. But the problem’s especially serious here in Japan, where less than 12 percent of the land is suitable for farming and every acre counts.

Japan’s government has responded with a proposal to completely overhaul the way the country gets its food. It wants to increase farm sizes 30-fold over the next five years to make them competitive on the global market. And it’s considering a sweeping new free trade agreement that would expose the country’s rice farmers to unprecedented international competition – all of which has ignited a passionate public debate over globalization, national identity and food self-sufficiency.

For Masahiro Hosoi, a 49-year-old organic farmer and restaurant owner, producing food isn’t just about economic efficiency. He says in Japan, it has a deeper, even spiritual meaning.

Masahiro Hosoi: When we see a scene where the rice plants are growing in a paddy, we feel serenity. We have these ideas in our culture. I am worried that these things may be lost. What’s important is not just that the produce is cheap and good quality, but by farming, we are actually connecting humans to the landscape. Farming cannot just be a simple capitalistic business practice.

Reporter: But farming is also about feeding people. That’s not so easy in a mountainous, densely packed country of 127 million. A visit to Tokyo’s giant wholesale fish and vegetable market, Tsukiji, gives a sense of the scale of the challenge.

Japan already imports 60 percent of the food it consumes. And after the toll taken by last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, that number is growing.

The trade agreement that the government is promoting would mainly boost the nation’s struggling manufacturing base. But there’s a tradeoff. It would also eliminate sky-high import tariffs on foreign rice – a move that would force Japan’s small farmers, like the Moris, to compete directly with industrial megafarms in the U.S. and Australia.

Mori: I think that the way it is now, if this small country – Japan – is put up against those big international growers, I think that it will be a tough situation.

Reporter: The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that Japanese rice production would drop 90 percent if the trade deal goes through.

But in a country where rice farmers like the Moris have long depended on subsidies to stay afloat, economist Nobuhiro Suzuki says he understands why the government favors an open market.

Nobuhiro Suzuki: With free trade, if we are talking economic efficiency, then there is no reason to do agriculture in a place like Japan. The obvious answer is that Japan should just import its food from countries that are efficient producers.

Reporter: But Suzuki says there’s more at stake than just economics. He says outsourcing food production can be a dangerous gamble.

Suzuki: The reason why we still think that it’s important for Japan to have a strong agricultural industry is that, if and when there’s ever a global emergency or trade agreements change, we will still be able to feed ourselves. Also, agriculture is very key in building Community and maintaining culture, as well as protecting the environment.  

Reporter: Farmers like Masahiro Hosoi are finding success with alternative business models that embrace those values while turning a profit. He now runs his own restaurant and sells the produce from his farm directly to high-end buyers. Hosoi says there’s a demand for healthy, high-quality products and that, for him, staying small is good for business. He says there’s a lesson there for the country as a whole.

Hosoi: No matter how big you try to make a farm, it’s not like Japan’s agriculture will ever compete with other countries’ large-scale industrial farms. So it just doesn’t make any sense.

Reporter: And as Japan’s countryside empties out, there are signs of a growing countermovement.

Thirty-three-year-old Yusuke Miyaji divides his time between urban Tokyo and his family pig farm.

Yusuke Miyaji: When I was a student, I thought I would be anything but a farmer. I wanted to start a cool business and live in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo and have a Ferrari. That was my dream.

Reporter: Then Miyaji saw what was happening to older farmers, like his father, and had an idea of how he could help. He formed a network of young Japanese farmers called Kosegare, or “Farmers’ Sons Network,” and launched a video marketing campaign to appeal to Japanese youth.

Miyaji: Once I looked at it a different way, thinking if we can integrate the entire supply chain into one business model – from food production all the way to the customers’ table – the image young people have of farming would change. I think that even though farming is a traditional industry, it can also be a cool, meaningful and even profitable business.

Reporter: Miyaji pioneered an e-commerce site called My Farmer, where customers can purchase farmers’ harvests online. Like Hosoi’s direct marketing business, My Farmer emphasizes a connection between the seller and the buyer – a connection that Miyaji hopes will draw more young people to farming.  

Miyaji: Our mission is to persuade children of farmers working in the center of Tokyo to quit their jobs and to return to their farm families and then to begin farming. That is the shortest and fastest way to reform agriculture in Japan, I think.

Reporter: Passing farmland on to the next generation is a dream shared by 64-year-old Chiharu Tezuka. With small farmers aging out and the government thinking big, Tezuka represents a sort of middle ground that some people say is a better way forward.

Tezuka grows wheat, rice and buckwheat in this scenic mountain valley in Matsumoto, about a three-hour drive west of Tokyo. He says 30 years ago, when he first started farming, he was drawn to the romanticism of small-scale, organic agriculture.

Chiharu Tezuka: That was going to be my life path, but in reality, it was extremely difficult and I was only able to continue organic farming for two years. It was unmanageable; the weeds and the insects were overwhelming. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make a living with that.

Reporter: So instead of getting a second job like most of Japan’s small farmers, Tezuka decided to scale up. He rented 800 separate fields from 300 different families, about 250 acres in all. Eventually, he added a flour mill and hired eight employees, including two of his sons. Tezuka still receives government subsidies. But his farm has been successful enough that he is confident his sons will carry on the business.

He points to Japan’s unique terrain – small patches of farmland tucked between mountains – as supporting a model like his.

Tezuka: Even if we could make larger crop fields, we’d still need to cultivate the smaller patches and areas in between.

Reporter: Tezuka compares the job of feeding the nation to constructing a traditional Japanese building.

Tezuka: What makes the building strong are the small stones that go in between the large ones to hold them in place. This is true for agriculture in Japan. Just look at the land we have: The large-scale farms are here, but we need the smaller farms to keep us strong.

Reporter: He says that foundation isn’t just important for Japanese agriculture. It’s what makes Japan, Japan.

Reporter/producer: Sam Eaton
Camera: Sam Eaton and Irene Herrera
Editor: Charlotte Buchen
Local fixer: Winifred Bird
Additional field translation: Toru Seno, Yuko Ota, Lindee Hoshikawa
Series producer: Cassandra Herrman
Executive producer, Food for 9 Billion: Sharon Tiller

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Sam Eaton

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist based in Los Angeles.  His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.