The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

A Community-Based Model of Rural Recovery

September 28, 2011

In recent months, media coverage of the Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath has featured a potpourri of ideas and opinions on the rehabilitation of farms and rural communities devastated by the quake and tsunami. Those suggested by local residents and others on the scene, needless to say, have been motivated by a sincere desire to resurrect their lives, and the majority of views contributed by agricultural experts and government administrators have similarly been very serious.

But there have been a few pundits who seem bent primarily on promoting their own views over competing ideas, giving a deplorable air of profiteering to some of the media discourse. Moreover, when communicated out of context through the medium of television—or even, in some cases, the newspapers—ideas that may originally have been presented in a systematic and coherent manner sometimes come across as a hail of competing, fragmented, and disjointed sound bites.

The media has a huge influence on public opinion. This makes it all the more essential to adopt a comprehensive and systematic approach to the subject of rebuilding affected communities. If problems are addressed in a piecemeal fashion, reconstruction measures are likely to come into conflict with one another, and easily overlooked issues can emerge as major impediments to progress.

No doubt these principles apply to all post-disaster recovery and reconstruction efforts. But a structural grasp of the whole is particularly important when it comes to agriculture and rural communities because of the many layers of interconnected issues and decision-making organizations involved. With this in mind, I will attempt to elucidate the challenges ahead and propose a framework and road-map for reconstruction planning, in hopes that my ideas may provide some useful fodder in the ongoing discussion.

My focus here will be on recovery and reconstruction from the direct impact of the earthquake and tsunami. Unquestionably, farming and rural communities in the region have been profoundly affected by the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. But with the evacuation process still under way, the full duration and scale of this secondary disaster is still impossible to gauge.

Furthermore, the loss of international confidence in Japanese food exports raises larger problems of national significance. For this reason I believe the Fukushima nuclear disaster needs to be examined from other angles as an issue in its own right, which I plan to address at a later date. That said, I am confident that many of the points I make below are pertinent to recovery from the nuclear crisis as well, and I hope they will be considered in that context.

Basic Reconstruction Needs

The amount of farmland seriously damaged by erosion or flooding from the March earthquake and tsunami has been estimated at 24,000 hectares. Since rice fields account for 20,000 hectares—85% of the total—I will concentrate here on the rice-farming industry.

The basic infrastructure needs for wet rice cultivation are (1) a water distribution system, including a water source, intake facilities, and main and branch irrigation canals; (2) floodable land suitable for use as paddy fields; and (3) a drainage system, consisting of branch channels, main channels, and canals, to drain the water from the paddies.

In addition, the low-lying coastal farms, where most of the recent damage occurred, are dependent on dykes to keep out seawater, as well as pumping stations to aid drainage, and most of the pumping stations were destroyed or incapacitated by the tsunami. Further inland, in the areas that escaped the tsunami, some farms are without irrigation owing to earthquake damage to reservoirs and other irrigation facilities.

Farm machinery and equipment are also essential if farmers are to complete their tasks on schedule. In the case of rice cultivation, most farmers rely on seedling transplanters and combines, often kept in a machinery shed adjoining the farmhouse.

Full-time farmers and corporate farms sometimes also have their own equipment for drying and milling rice. The March disaster resulted in massive damage to such farm equipment and facilities as well as well as to farmers' homes. In an area known for not only rice but also greenhouse strawberry cultivation, the damage to greenhouses—common on rice farms throughout Japan—was particularly serious.

In fact, in many of the affected areas, the bulk of the infrastructure and equipment described above was destroyed. In those cases, reviving the local farm industry will essentially mean rebuilding it from the ground up. With such circumstances in mind, I believe a suitable framework for recovery is the approach outlined below.

Dividing Responsibilities

First, the national and prefectural governments must take responsibility for restoring essential infrastructure serving large areas, including pumping stations and major irrigation and drainage canals. The state and prefectures have always been in charge of construction and improvement of such essential infrastructure, so the restoration of such systems and facilities is best carried out under government leadership.

By contrast, the revival of the local farm economy and community life should be driven by bottom-up decision making. Indeed, whether in the agricultural realm or elsewhere, I believe that the revival of local industry and community life must be powered by the initiative and drive of the area's individual business owners and citizens.

This is not a simplistic call for self-reliance. There is no question that the victims of a major disaster need material and emotional support from the public sector. But all public assistance should be provided in such a way as to encourage personal initiative and drive and to leverage it for the revival of the community. How to proceed so as to foster such initiative and drive in the context of farming and rural communities is the subject of the following section. The point I wish to stress here is that top-down planning is poorly suited to the revival of economic and social life at the community level. Final decisions should be in the hands of those who are in a position to take responsibility for them.

In the preceding I have argued for government-led infrastructure restoration and private, bottom-up rebuilding of the community's economic and social life. But in the farm sector there are many activities that straddle or fall midway between the two realms, being handled jointly or by any of a number of quasi-public organizations.

The branch canals of a local irrigation system are maintained and used collectively by the farmers in that area. The places where rural communities hold meetings of various sorts are community facilities. In many instances cultivation itself is a collective undertaking; when a whole community is involved, this is called community farming. Even in activities like greenhouse cultivation—where most steps in the production process are handled at the level of the individual farm—collection and shipping is generally managed by local agricultural cooperatives, which have storage and transport facilities in their respective regions.

A major issue that falls outside the categories of government leadership and bottom-up decision making is land adjustment. Rural land-use adjustment can be divided into two basic types. The first involves altering the use of farmland without converting it to nonagricultural uses. The process of rehabilitating damaged farmland is sure to involve adjustment of rights pertaining to usage, since some farmers will undoubtedly elect not to resume their trade. Adjustment of ownership rights may also be necessary if redevelopment plans necessitate changes in property boundaries.

The second type of land-use adjustment involves conversion of land to nonagricultural uses. This is the kind of adjustment issue that most often arises in connection with municipal land-use planning. Some communities where the tsunami devastated fields and residential areas alike will doubtless elect to disregard previous land-use zoning in their redevelopment plans. In such cases, redevelopment planning will in essence mean formulating a new land-use plan.

We have seen that Japanese farming and rural communities have traditionally depended on organizations of various sorts to perform a wide range of functions. In many cases, those entities have taken the lead in reviving the services or functions they originally oversaw or performed. However, in areas that were hit particularly hard, it may be necessary to begin by rebuilding the organizations themselves. In any case, restoration of multiple functions and services will require integrated planning based on a "grand vision" for the farming and community life in the area, not merely a hodgepodge of unconnected projects. This is where the framework below comes in.

Basic Units of Action

As mentioned previously, all public assistance to disaster-stricken areas must be conceived and administered with the goal of fostering personal initiative and drive at the local level. The vitality of local industry and the amenities of local community life are nothing but the aggregate of individual efforts and activities.

Yet the emotional state of disaster victims who have lost family and friends as well as homes and farms often precludes such initiative and drive. For this reason, the public sector must continue to provide material and emotional support as needed, while carefully monitoring the conditions of those receiving it and providing information and guidance to aid and encourage local reconstruction efforts.

I will examine the content of such information in more detail in the following section, but for now let us consider the best means of delivering it. Some intermediary organ will surely be needed to gather, compile, and convey information and recommendations from a wide range of sources. It seems to me that prefectural governments are best suited to this role, since they are knowledgeable about local conditions but also positioned to ensure that information is consistent with national plans for restoring infrastructure.

Needless to say, this assumes that the prefectures will coordinate with the central government and municipalities, in addition to cooperating with one another. The major cities of each prefecture could be expected to play a key role by putting forward qualified candidates for the tasks of planning, data compilation, and so forth.

Now let us consider the basic organizational unit for those receiving and acting on such information.

Japanese farming and rural communities have been shaped by a variety of geographical and historical forces and are thus quite diverse in scale and structure, and this is true even in the area hit by the March earthquake and tsunami. Moreover, the extent of the damage sustained by the disaster varies greatly from one community to the next.

For these reasons, local communities should be allowed considerable flexibility in organizing for reconstruction. In most cases, I believe the best choice for reconstruction units will be the kyuson , that is, the former villages that constituted the basic administrative units of rural Japan prior to the widespread municipal mergers of the mid-1950s, and that still exist as identifiable districts.

While the residential clusters known as shuraku may be considered the basic unit of community life in rural Japan today, the trend toward larger-scale farming on plots leased from multiple owners has given rise to more and more farms that straddle the boundaries of those smaller units. The kyuson often correspond to school districts and local branches of agricultural co-ops, and they are small enough for residents to feel a sense of community.

Assuming that these kyuson become the basic unit of reconstruction, the next step is for each to establish a forum for the purpose of developing a blueprint through a process of free-ranging debate and discussion among the farmers themselves, as well as other members of the community. It is to this "rural reconstruction council," as I shall tentatively name it, that the prefecture should furnish information and options for reconstruction.

The councils will need to tap the various rural organizations discussed above for their expert views on a range of issues, but the role of such organizations should be limited to providing advice. This is to ensure that the local councils give a fair hearing to bold ideas for undertakings outside of the traditional organizational framework, in the likely event that some of those involved in reconstruction planning perceive a need for such measures. Of course, to qualify for adoption, proposals must be not merely bold but also supported by meticulous study and deliberation.

Some may question whether one can expect bold ideas and meticulous study from a council made up of local farmers. Given the advanced age of Japan's farming population, it would be overly optimistic to anticipate legions of imaginative, intrepid volunteers. But any unit the size of a kyuson , the pre-1950s village (as opposed to a smaller settlement of shuraku ) is bound to have people with the combination of business acumen and concern needed to assume a leadership role in the local reconstruction process.

Needless to say, officers of established organizations should not be disqualified from assuming such a role, provided that they have the qualities needed to guide the development of such a plan, including a willingness not to insist on pushing ideas that would only serve the narrow interests of their organizations.

As previously noted, Japanese agriculture and rural society rely on an array of organizations and agencies. Each rural municipality has an agricultural committee to deal with property-rights issues relating to farmland, while the building and maintenance of physical farmland facilities, such as irrigation canals and reservoirs, are carried out by local land improvement districts.

Agricultural extension centers are established at the prefectural level to disseminate the latest technologies. The nationwide system of farm cooperatives, known as nokyo , plays an indispensable role in the distribution and sale of farm products. Agricultural mutual aid associations administer the crop and livestock insurance program, which performs a vital function in the aftermath of disasters. And of course, municipal governments play an important part in many aspects of farming and farm policy, including land-use zoning, title transfer, and the thorny task of rice production adjustment.

The expertise within these organizations and agencies will doubtless provide valuable support for reconstruction planning at the community level, and the resulting blueprints will entail measures and activities that fall naturally under the jurisdiction of these organs.

In the establishment and operation of the reconstruction councils, we should look to municipal governments to play a particularly important role behind the scenes. Theirs will not be an easy task. Simply obtaining a local consensus for the formation of such a council will be difficult in situations where an area has been evacuated and the farmers are dispersed.

Moreover, the resources and capabilities of municipal administration are limited. In recent years many municipalities have found themselves hard-pressed to provide adequate support for agriculture owing to personnel and funding constraints, and now they must grapple with the loss of staff and property damage from the tsunami. The importance of providing assistance to municipal governments for all aspects of reconstruction cannot be emphasized too strongly.

The Prefecture's Role

Let us bring these hypothetical reconstruction councils and their work into closer and sharper focus through a kind of informal simulation. It would not be useful to prescribe a standard blueprint, given the diversity of the region's farm industry and rural communities, as well as the wants and needs of its farmers. That said, to the extent that similar conditions pertain to agriculture and rural life throughout Japan, we can assume some commonality in the challenges facing these communities and in their hopes for the future. With those commonalities in mind, I would like to offer one possible road-map for reconstruction deliberation and planning.

The process can begin with the formation and launch of the rural reconstruction council under the guidance of prefectural authorities and with the support of the municipal government. Since the readiness of the communities affected will vary considerably, there is no need to impose a uniform launch date. That said, the establishment of reconstruction councils should not be limited to just those communities that are quick to embrace the idea. Taken as a whole, the councils should cover all farms and rural communities in the region hit by the disaster.

The first thing the prefectural government needs to communicate is the role of the reconstruction council as a means of pooling the resources and ingenuity of the community and as a forum for careful deliberation of a basic reconstruction plan. This would also be the time to provide information on all national and prefectural aid and technical assistance available to support reconstruction planning.

In addition, the prefecture should provide the latest information on tax breaks and other special relief measures under consideration by the national government, since the availability and extent of such relief will be a premise of the council's deliberations. The important thing is to provide a full range of pertinent information as systematically as possible—from the practical usability of each idea to its relationship to larger systems and policy frameworks.

The prefecture and the council should communicate many times, supported by the municipal government, before the task is finished. Meanwhile, the prefectural authorities will need to maintain good lines of communication with the central government in order to seek approval for requests from the community that they deem reasonable. These discussions, too, need to be communicated to the council. With the central government involved as necessary, this ongoing dialogue should open the way to the relaxation of systemic constrains, opening up a wider range of options.

In terms of technical information, the prefecture should move quickly to provide communities with accurate assessments and forecasts pertaining to the agricultural conditions and restoration of infrastructure. For example, the possibility of frequent flooding may be a new concern in areas that have experienced ground subsidence.

Information on the all-important matter of field conditions should be provided as quickly as possible, since it can heavily influence farm management decisions. The prefecture will need to work closely with local agencies and organizations to carry out timely assessments and issue recovery and restoration timetables as quickly as possible.

The Council’s Role

The reconstruction council, for its part, will conduct independent deliberations and develop a vision for local agriculture based on the resources available to the community.

The most basic agricultural resource is farmland. Throughout Japan, elderly farmers have been retiring in rapidly increasing numbers in recent years, and this trend could accelerate in areas hit by the disaster. With fewer farmers to cultivate the available land, land-use adjustment is sure to be one of the issues requiring attention.

The size and form of the farms that emerge from the recovery process is a matter of considerable import when mapping the future of the local farm industry. But people should avoid the simplistic assumption that bigger is better. In agriculture, the ideal plot size and shape size vary according to the crop and the method of farming.

In low-lying areas prone to flooding, communities might want to consider regrading farmland to make it suitable for nursery and greenhouse cultivation, taking their cue from the highly successful development of such operations on the Atsumi Peninsula.

There are also new developments in technology to be considered, including recent advances in energy-efficient, environmentally friendly "vegetable factories." Meanwhile, the expansion of the farming sector into the food-processing and restaurant businesses has allowed more and more farms to reinvent themselves as businesses that can set their own prices. Such cutting-edge technologies and business models should be taken into account when developing a reconstruction plan.

The impetus for innovation may originate in the information and options provided by the prefecture, or a council may begin exploring such possibilities on its own initiative. The reconstruction councils should also consider leveraging any existing relationships with consumer co-ops, food-processing operations, and researchers at universities or regional experimental stations.

The Right to a New Beginning

Prior to the March earthquake and tsunami, the farmers of each community grappled with challenges and cherished dreams for the future. In each area there were doubtless hopeful developments as well as intractable problems and dead ends. By destroying so much of the agricultural infrastructure of these communities, the tsunami pushed the reset button in these communities, through no wish of their own. It swept away not only homes and farms but also washed away many of the obsolete structures and practices that have stood in the way of change.

I mentioned available resources as the basis for local planning, but utilization patterns are another key factor. As the reconstruction of farming villages proceeds, these communities will have an opportunity to apply the available resources in ways that are dramatically different from traditional uses.

Land-use zoning offers the most obvious potential for positive change. Rather than merely shift the boundaries between residential and agricultural zones, communities should consider establishing brand-new zones dedicated to things like community gardening and hands-on agricultural education. Demand for community gardening plots is growing even in rural areas as farmers retire and move into town alongside non-farming households. Hands-on educational facilities could provide an impetus for young people to become farmers of tomorrow, while giving older farmers an opportunity to serve as veteran instructors.

Now is the time for residents to mull over ideas that they would previously have dismissed as impossible or to revive an abandoned or neglected dream. In the fluidity of its present circumstances, each community has the opportunity to make the most of the blank slate facing it and develop these ideas and dreams into a new blueprint for the future.

There is no doubt that existing systems will raise obstacles to the implementation of such plans. But if communities study and debate the issues thoroughly, and farmers and residents unite in their pursuit of a new vision, a persuasive, pragmatic case for regulatory change is bound to take shape. A key consideration when revising regulations is how effectively the revised regulations can be used in practice. In areas hit by the March disaster, such deliberations are bound to have a highly practical slant.

The tsunami swept away entire farms and communities, leaving nothing in some areas but a bleak and ravaged landscape. Those of us blessed with homes where we can live and jobs that we can pursue in safety can only stand silent in the face of such devastation. All of us should think long and hard before spouting statements that exploit the tragedy for profit or self-promotion, or to advance some sweeping deregulatory agenda.

But this does not mean that people from the affected areas should shrink from turning misfortune into an opportunity for renewal. To the contrary, the victims have a right to seize this moment to craft a new vision for regional agriculture and rural life. Moreover, the rest of us stand to learn important lessons from the process by which they do so. For my part, I intend to do all I can to support their efforts.

    • SENIOR FELLOW / Professor, Graduate School of Bioagricultural Sciences, Nagoya University
    • Shinichi Shogenji
    • Shinichi Shogenji

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