Farming in Japan is no longer a man’s business. Women are increasing their presence in Japanese agricultural communities traditionally dominated by men.
Struggling with male-centered values, some women farmers have joined hands to find ways to survive and prosper after taking over their family agricultural businesses or entering the industry on their own initiative.
Chika Yasumaru, 30, inherited her family farm and is growing melons in Kamifurano, Hokkaido.
Yasumaru had wanted to be a farmer ever since she was a child, and after she graduated from an agricultural university she returned to her hometown to take over the farm.
But the community awaiting her was one in which men play the central roles.
“They thought that at local farmers’ meetings, women should be farmers’ wives. They thought I came home not as the heir but just because I had failed to find a job and would stay only until I got married,” she said.
Things changed four years ago when Yasumaru got to know Arisa Takagi, 28, a dairy farmer from Kamishihoro, southeast of Kamifurano, during a workshop organized for female farmers.
The two women hit it off instantly and shared their concerns and dreams. In December 2013, they formed “Harapeko” — a group whose sound and written characters indicate a meaning of “Hungry Girls” — together with about 20 other women farmers to encourage and support each other.
“What we first did was look for a man,” Yasumaru said, stressing that it is an urgent issue for female farm heirs as the husband must be someone who is willing to be adopted into the wife’s family.
The group organized matchmaking events and Takagi found her husband Hiroki, 26, at one of them held in Sapporo.
Takagi, the youngest of three sisters, decided to take over the farm that was founded by her grandfather after her elder sisters married into other families when she was a college student.
Takagi said she had never thought of inheriting the family business, but decided to do so after hearing her grandfather say sadly, “Well, we’ll have to shut down our farm.”
After beginning to farm, Takagi found it harder than she had imagined. The reality was that she had to wake up before dawn every day to milk and feed cows and to stay in a shed for hours to take care of a cow that had gone into labor.
“In the first year, I was hardly able to find time to leave the farm,” she said.
About a year ago Takagi married Hiroki, who was also raised on a dairy farm. He did not have to take over his family’s farm because he was the second son. Typically the eldest son inherits the family business in Japan.
Aside from matchmaking, the Harapeko group has engaged in other activities, including arranging events to share their farming experiences with female students of an agricultural high school.
“If possible, however, I want the day to come sooner when it will make no difference whether you are a man or woman and a group like ours won’t be necessary,” she said. “But until then, we’ll keep going.”
The number of women who began farming in 2015 was less than 16,000, according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
To help women go into agriculture, Yukiko Iwatate, 29, plans to launch in March an online matchmaking site specifically for women interested in farming and male farmers struggling to find a spouse, by raising money via crowdfunding.
Iwatate, who used to work for a major securities firm, said, “I would recommend marrying a farmer” if a woman wants to make a living in agriculture. She herself liked farming and married a farmer, Masayuki, 36, in 2014.
She is currently assisting in matchmaking events in which men and women harvest vegetables together. An event held in November in Matsudo, Chiba Pref., was attended by about 30 men and women and produced three couples.
Takayoshi Enomoto, 61, the director of the nonprofit organization that organized the event, said, “The story of a woman like Ms. Iwatate who married a farmer is useful and I hope it will inspire other women to take a step forward.”
Elsewhere, women are teaming up to give a boost to local agriculture on the back of the drive to attract women into agriculture and encourage female farmers.
About 40 female farmers in Okayama Prefecture work together in a group to produce and sell their vegetables and processed food.
“There is probably less rivalry among women than men as they would rather support each other,” Misa Fujii, 51, deputy director of the group called “Okayama Nogyo Joshi” (Okayama farmer girls), said.
Hisako Okamoto, 47, co-leader of Okayama Nogyo Joshi, said that farms are now mostly run by nuclear families and support is needed for female farmers to take care of their children.
More than 500 members are currently taking part in the ministry’s “Farmer Girls” projects, compared with 37 when it started in 2013, according to the ministry.
“I suppose women understand consumers’ perspectives better than men,” a senior ministry official said.
The official’s assumption is supported by a Japan Finance Corp. study that found large-scale farming businesses tend to be more profitable if women join the management.
Kaori Mitsumori, 51, a grape farmer from Koshu, Yamanashi Pref., who is a member of a government advisory body, praised moves by female famers to empower themselves, noting that a kind of “feudalistic nature” remains in Japanese farming communities.
“What women need in farming is just an accumulation of experience,” she said. “I hope they will encourage each other and grow together.”
Ryuichi Kadota contributed to this story