KUMAMOTO — The city of Yamaga, at the northern edge of Kumamoto Prefecture, is a landscape marked with rice paddies. The farmers who tend them are a socially conservative lot — a loyal source of support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Yamaga, population 58,000, is particularly symbolic because it is part of the district of former agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka — the influential but scandal-tainted Lower House member who hanged himself in May after the eruption of a political funds scandal. This is also the hometown of the district’s LDP candidate in Sunday’s election, incumbent Issui Miura.
But a chat with farmers around here quickly reveals that loyalty to the LDP is not what it once was.
Farmers have been a strong pillar of support for the LDP throughout its half-century of nearly unbroken rule. But the recent public pension fiasco, repeated scandals rocking the Cabinet and — most important in these parts — agricultural policies unable to ensure steady incomes have alienated farmers in Kumamoto. It and other rural districts across Japan are poised to register a pent-up anger in the election.
Such a rebellion could help the Democratic Party of Japan, which has promised relief for farmers, score major gains.
“Farmers may have all the appearances of being united behind the LDP, but if you scratch beneath the surface, things aren’t necessarily so certain,” said a deeply tanned 70-year-old farmer in Kumamoto, one of the 29 single-seat districts up for grabs in the House of Councilors election.
Locals still resent former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s flirtation with swing voters in urban areas — at farmers’ expense.
In the past, one hand washed the other. The LDP-led ruling bloc protected farmers from global competition by restricting competing imports, opening channels for export and granting subsidies to farmers who agreed to limit their crops to keep rice prices high. Farmers also got financial support to build infrastructure vital to their industry, such as greenhouses.
In exchange, the LDP was assured of an outpouring of rural votes every election — granting it an impunity of sorts from punishment despite year after year of scandals.
Longtime farmer Kazuyoshi Shiraki is a typical example of that brand of voter doggedly loyal to the LDP, speaking admiringly of the favors bestowed by the late farm minister.
“Mr. Matsuoka did good by us. I’ll continue to support the LDP at the election,” Shiraki, 74, said in thick Kumamoto dialect from atop his tractor in a field where he plans to grow feed for his cattle.
LDP stalwarts like Shiraki, though, seem to be fewer in number nowadays.
Facing global pressure to liberalize agricultural trade, Koizumi promoted food imports and scrapped a policy to shore up rice prices in favor of price competition. Farmers say prices were already edging down in earlier decades, and Koizumi only increased the strain after taking office in 2001. Frustration with LDP policy is now bubbling to the surface.
“The LDP was just throwing around subsidies, and didn’t do anything to help us cultivate a new generation of farmers,” the ruddy, 70-year-old farmer said. His stake in the issue is particularly deep, as he was compelled to switch from rice to tobacco as part of the LDP’s policy to limit the rice supply.
The farmer said that most farmers in his neighborhood of 140 households are in their 60s or older. “Without successors, there will be no future for us,” he said.
Where the LDP sees turmoil, the opposition sees opportunity.
“People who used to back up the LDP are wavering now,” said Hatsuo Yamashita, vice secretary general of the DPJ’s Kumamoto branch. “Many people believe that swing voters exist only in big cities, but the number of ‘floating voters’ is increasing among farmers.”
Yamashita said that is why DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa has made frequent visits to rural areas since he became the head of the main opposition party last year.
In contrast with the LDP’s policy of propping up rice prices by controlling supply, and also prodding farmers to combine their operations to cut costs, the DPJ’s proposal is more attractive to many farmers — letting them grow rice freely but subsidizing them for any drop in market prices that might ensue.
The DPJ sees that as a compromise necessary to help Japan’s farmers stay afloat in a competitive global market while ensuring a homegrown food supply. With that in mind, Ozawa has visited Kumamoto Prefecture five times to drum up support.
“This coming election is the one that will decide the future of Japan,” he told an audience gathered in Minamiaso, a village in northern Kumamoto in the district of fallen farm chief Matsuoka.
Standing in a breathtaking landscape of grassy fields and rice paddies surrounded by the Aso Mountains, Ozawa delivered a 40-minute speech during which applause from the audience grew the more he talked.
He has even struck a chord with some rivals.
“Ozawa’s strategy of zeroing in on single-seat districts works well, particularly with the policy to compensate farmers’ income,” said Kumamoto Prefectural Assembly Chairman Torami Murakami of the LDP. Acknowledging the difficulty his party is facing, he said: “The battle is fierce. Not only in Kumamoto, but nationwide.”
He added that the old ways of organizing campaigns do not work as they once did, partly because many aging farmers are dropping out of the agricultural-based political organizations that once got out much of the vote.
According to Miura’s camp, he has traditionally had the support of more than 200 groups, many of which consist of farmers.
The possible shift in rural voters may change the face of national politics.
To be sure, the LDP may be able to re-establish strong ties with the countryside, and the voting blocs it represents. But even that could be a short-lived victory as farming populations shrink and age.
For now, many farmers are pinning big hopes on Ozawa’s policies. The payoff, some say, may not only be economic but political as well.
“A one-party monopoly is not good. This is not China,” said the sun-baked tobacco farmer. “It’s good for parties to compete with each other to offer the best policies.”