(Kyodo) The pain of reforms advocated by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is quietly beginning to be felt by farmers who have to supplement their income with side jobs in an area of Niigata Prefecture facing the Sea of Japan once called the “kingdom of public works.”

The area is the city of Ojiya in the Uonuma region, where Japan’s longest river, the Shinano, runs between vast rice paddies.

It was the home district of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

In response to Koizumi’s structural reform agenda, the government drew up ceilings in August on budget requests for the next fiscal year, including a 10 percent cut in public works investment.

The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry reacted with the prediction that if the cut is implemented, the nation’s construction industry would shed 620,000 jobs over three years.

Junichi Ohbuchi, a 44-year-old part-time truck driver who hauls freshly mixed concrete, noted, “Big undertakings involving the construction of bullet train lines, expressways, power plants and tunnels that have been going on without pause for nearly 30 years have suddenly begun to decline.”

As he spoke, a fleet of trucks lined up to be loaded with concrete. Three years ago, he lost his job when the concrete-trucking outfit he was working for went into a slump.

Ohbuchi owns a rice paddy of about one hectare in a mountainous area in a town adjacent to Ojiya. But he says he cannot support his family without doing occasional part-time work.

He is one of those farmers who has to work on the side because his farming business is in the red.

“I work more than double the hours of ordinary salaried people, but we are barely subsisting,” Ohbuchi said. “Even if I want to give up my paddy, I can’t because it was passed on to me from my ancestors.”

The bulk of people working on public works projects in the Uonuma region are farmers first.

They wake up before dawn to tend their crops and return to the fields after coming home from their second jobs.

Large-scale public works called “special procurements” began to cool off gradually several years ago.

A man in the concrete business in Ojiya said: “The output of freshly mixed concrete has dropped to one-third of the peak period. We’re in a situation where it’s no longer out of the ordinary for construction companies to go belly up.”

The impact that Koizumi’s reforms will inevitably have on the lives of small-scale farmers who depend on public works is beginning to sink in.

“The significance of a 10 percent cutback in (the budget ceilings for) public works means that the government will not approve new public works unless such an undertaking is, indeed, necessary,” said Hiroshi Wakai, deputy chief of the prefectural civil engineering office in Ojiya. “It is going to be very hard for us.”

Matsuki Sato, a 53-year-old employee at a construction firm in Ojiya, has purchased a high-performance farm implement on credit to cut down on the time he spends in his fields because he fears he will be unable to take a paid vacation.

“Right now, farm families with jobs on the side are working closer to the edge,” he said. “They talk about structural reforms, but we won’t be able to stand up to even a single blow.”

With anxiety showing on his deeply tanned shoulders, he exhaled deeply and set out to work a little after 5 a.m., saying: “If I lose my job, we won’t be able to live on farming alone. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us at year’s end.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.