Commentary / Japan

Why the farm vote still matters in Japan

by Kazuhito Yamashita

The ruling coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party emerged victorious in the July 21 Upper House election, winning 71 seats to capture a majority of the seats contested, against the 53 seats won by opposition parties. Of the 74 electoral districts nationwide, competition between the ruling and opposition camps was the most heated in 32 constituencies that each elects a single winner in the triennial election.

The LDP spent campaign resources intensively on the races in the Tohoku region — where it ended up winning in only one constituency and losing out to the opposition in five others. The three main opposition parties tried to maximize their wins over the ruling alliance by fielding common candidates in all 32 districts there. In the end, the ruling coalition won 22 districts and lost 10 — not much different from their 21 wins and 11 losses in the last 2016 election. In the Tohoku region and Niigata Prefecture combined, the ruling parties won two districts and lost five — the same performance as three years ago.

The results may come as a surprise to Japanese people. Niigata and Tohoku are agricultural regions, where farming, in particular rice farming, occupies a key position in their economy and society. In the past, these prefectures were deemed LDP strongholds.

The biggest reform in postwar Japan was the farmland reform of 1947. Reformist bureaucrats in the agricultural ministry had long sought to improve the status of tenant farmers, who had to pay up to half of their crops as rent to their landlords. With the help of the Occupation authorities, the officials bought up farmland from landowners at cheap prices and delivered the land to tenant farmers.

Initially, the Occupation authorities were not much interested in farmland reform. But the socialist movement that raged in farming communities right after the war, calling for the liberation of tenant farmers, quickly died down with the progress in farmland reform — because the former tenant farmers became conservative after they were turned into owners of their small plots of farmland. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the U.S.-led postwar Occupation, saw this as a cue to turn the conservative farming communities into a bulwark against communism, and ordered the agricultural ministry to legislate the farmland law designed to institutionalize the results of farmland reform: that farmers should own the land they cultivate. The farmland law did become a powerful policy tool against communism.

Behind the LDP’s grip on power for much of the more than six decades after its establishment in 1955 is the loyal support of farmers. It was the agricultural cooperatives that organized the now-conservative farming communities. The agricultural cooperative system that gave each farmer one vote in its decision-making, designed to treat all members of the cooperative equally, worked extremely well to organize the farming communities — which were comprised of farmers who each cultivated uniform-size farmland of roughly 1 hectare as a result of the farmland reform.

Agricultural cooperatives became Japan’s greatest pressure group. They threw their support behind LDP candidates in elections, and the party realized the hikes in rice purchase prices demanded by the agricultural cooperatives.

That the LDP struggled in the Upper House races in Niigata and Tohoku constituencies is proof that agriculture remains a crucial issue in these areas. It is believed that the LDP’s losses in the Tohoku constituencies in the 2016 election were influenced by the decision by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to join the talks for Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact — which had been opposed by the agricultural cooperatives — as well as the steep fall in the prices of rice produced in 2014.

Even in the 2013 election, when the LDP swept 29 of the 32 crucial electoral districts, the local agricultural cooperative organization in Yamagata Prefecture, unhappy with Abe’s decision to enter the TPP talks, cast their support behind the LDP’s rival candidate. The LDP candidate narrowly escaped defeat by winning 48 percent of the vote — against the opponent’s 45 percent.

Why are farm votes so important even today?

The number of farming households across Japan has dwindled sharply — from 6.06 million in 1960 to 2.16 million in 2015. In Akita Prefecture — a major rice-farming area in Tohoku — the number declined from 120,000 in 1965 to a mere 50,000, and the share of farmers in the total households in the prefecture plummeted from 42.8 percent to 12.6 percent (still well above the nationwide average of 4 percent) over the same period. Agriculture today accounts for a mere 2.5 percent of Akita’s gross output (compared with the national average of 0.9 percent). It does not appear that farmers hold a decisive influence over the election outcome.

In the proportional representation segment of the Upper House elections, Toshio Yamada, who was elected to the chamber on the LDP’s ticket as a representative of the agricultural cooperatives, has been winning fewer votes — 449,000 in 2007, 338,000 in 2013 and 218,000 in 2019, losing more than 110,000 votes in each election.

Nevertheless, the farmers’ votes continue to hold crucial importance in the 32 electoral districts that each elect a single lawmaker in the triennial race. The same holds true for Lower House races in its single-seat constituencies.

The farmers’ votes are organized by the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, or JA. If the votes are split 50-50 between ruling and opposition party candidates during the campaign, organized votes of farmers, which may account for a mere 2 percent of the total, can tip the balance to 48 percent versus 52 percent. Such a prospect leaves politicians elected from single-seat constituencies scared.

This does not mean that ruling and opposition parties differ a lot in their agricultural policies. It’s the opposite. Both the ruling and opposition party candidates compete to win over the farmers by advocating protection of farmers. JA, which organizes the votes of farmers, has lobbied for keeping rice prices high to sustain inefficient small-scale farmers with other primary-income jobs. JA has in fact developed into the nation’s second-largest mega-bank as the part-time farmers save their income from the other jobs in its banking operation.

Calls to cut tariffs on agricultural imports and lower prices of farm products, in particularly rice, will be certain to alienate the JA group and hand over farm votes to the rival candidate.

In the 2012 Lower House election that put the LDP back into power, most of the voters who cast their ballots for the party supported the TPP, but most of the successful LDP candidates opposed the trade deal — because the JA organization strongly opposed it.

In 2003, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said it’s irrational that agriculture, which accounts for a mere 1 percent of Japan’s GDP, becomes a key issue in trade negotiations. Unfortunately, he may not have been aware that agriculture also accounts for only about 1 percent of GDP of the U.S. The U.S. is little different from Japan in that farmers’ votes cannot be ignored in elections.

Kazuhito Yamashita is research director of the Canon Institute for Global Studies and a senior fellow of the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and industry.