Commentary / Japan

A new direction for Japanese agriculture

by Kotaro Tamura

The government should try to promote overseas agricultural production by Japanese farmers, rather than the export of agricultural products. Japan’s agriculture is suffering a serious setback from the copying of its valuable products, such as Shine Muscat grapes, and discount sales of copycat products abroad. While it is important to strengthen control of the smuggling of seeds and seedlings out of Japan, there is a limit to that effort. As more than 30 million inbound tourists are expected to visit Japan each year, ecotourism and agritourism will likely prosper. I’m afraid that more people posing as tourists will bring seeds and seedlings back to their countries. What should we do?

Now is the time for Japanese agriculture and farmers to go back to the basic idea that agriculture is manufacturing. Japanese farmers should go abroad and carry out local production of their splendid products by not only controlling the use of seeds and seedlings but also managing the production process. They can sell their products in local markets overseas at prices cheaper than those exported from Japan — and at higher prices than the products of local farmers due to their added value.

As a member of the Diet, I was a pioneer in selling Japanese agricultural products in overseas markets at high prices. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai about 10 years ago, I successfully sold watermelons from Tottori Prefecture, my constituency, at ¥30,000 apiece — compared with the ¥2,000 that they fetched in the domestic market. This made headlines across Japan and touched off a move to sell Japanese farm products overseas. I was invited by agricultural organizations throughout the country to give lectures.

But I learned from my experience that the cost of shipping agricultural products by air is not insignificant. Selling watermelons in Abu Dhabi and Dubai was profitable because subsidies from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry covered the air freight expense. But to turn such export sales into a sustainable business, one cannot continue to rely on the government to pay transport costs.

In reality, it is very difficult to strictly control the smuggling of seeds and seedlings — the result of Japanese farmers’ strenuous efforts to make good products — out of this country. Since many of the nation’s farmers are aging, they do not have enough time and energy to monitor and control the movement of seeds and seedlings. Therefore, the only way forward is for Japanese farmers to grow their products abroad for overseas markets. That is a tenable option in terms of both seed and seedling management, and shipping costs.

Farmers can take measures to protect their seeds and seedlings as intellectual property and grow vegetables and fruit carefully. They can improve their products by taking into consideration local weather conditions and consumers preferences — something Japanese are skilled at. Produce grown that way will never lose out to copycat products made from seeds or seedlings smuggled out of Japan. Since such products would carry added value and do not have to be shipped by air, farmers can expect higher profit margins than exporting them from Japan.

In Singapore, Japanese fruit is sold at fairly high prices to cover the cost of shipping by air. It seems that they are not selling so well. One of the reasons is that copycat products from neighboring countries are also available.

The only thing Japanese farmers can do in this situation is to go overseas and grow their products there. If they can make money through farming abroad, more young people may opt to take up farming jobs. If those farmers marry local women and have children, their bilingual children may become active in various fields in many parts of the world.

Growing produce abroad is the key for agriculture, which ultimately is manufacturing. This will increase local employment, while at the same time resolving the manpower shortage at home. Japanese farmers, I wish you good luck.

Kotaro Tamura, a former Upper House member and parliamentary secretary in charge of economic and fiscal policy, is an Asia fellow at the Milken Institute and serves as an adjunct professor at National University of Singapore.