Tomiyoshi Kurogoushi sighs as he looks over the terraced rice fields in the mountains of central Japan that were tended by generations of his family. Most are now covered in weeds and silver grass.
The area of land Kurogoushi still farms in Yabu, Hyogo prefecture, has shrunk to little more than a small plot around his house where he and his wife Yoko grow potatoes, cabbages and carrots to feed themselves and his mother. Rather than sow rice, the 66-year-old works at a ski resort as a general manager.
“Farmland is deteriorating as people here are getting old,” said Kurogoushi, whose two daughters married and moved away. “Even though we have the land for farming, we can’t really keep doing it. Paddy fields have to be tilled or they’ll be ruined.”
Across Japan it’s the same story. The area of abandoned arable land has almost doubled in the past 20 years as the population gets older and young adults that grew up in rural areas like Yabu move to the big cities to find work. This sleepy community was thrust into the national spotlight after being chosen in March by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration as a test-bed for the revival of the nation’s declining provinces.
Along with five other areas, Yabu, 600 kilometers west of Tokyo, was designated as a strategic special zone, with the promise to loosen regulations in areas such as agriculture, medicine and labor. The idea is to create development blueprints as part of Abe’s crusade to pull the country out of two decades of economic doldrums.
While most of the other zones are well-known regional centers of industry, agriculture or tourism, Yabu is the dark horse, a little-known semi-mountainous area with a varied past spanning silk farming, tin mining and rice cultivation.
“Now is the last chance to revive agriculture,” said Sakae Hirose, mayor of Yabu. “In three to five years, the old farmers will lay down their plows, the farmland will be left uncultivated and Yabu will fall into decline. We have to create an environment where new entrants can easily come in.”
Like most provincial towns in Japan, the twin forces of emigration and a falling birth rate have hollowed out the community. By 2060, the government estimates four out of 10 people in Japan will be 65 or older, up from a quarter now. In Yabu, it’s already a third, according to the 2010 census.
Yabu’s selection as a special zone was prompted by the determination of Hirose and his team to restructure farming practices to reverse that decline, said Heizo Takenaka, a member of a government council on the zones and a professor at Keio University. The mayor’s plans may include taking over authority for land sales from the farmer-run local agricultural committee.
“We’re greatly impressed by Yabu’s enthusiasm and passion for reform,” said Takenaka at a seminar in Tokyo in April. “The special zone probably won’t be successful without this determination.”
Abe’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga met Hirose and farmers in Yabu on July 5 and said the area could become a model for other semi-mountainous regions in the country, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.
Yabu’s municipal status was upgraded in 2004, when it was merged with a series of towns strung out along the mountainous valleys of the Maruyama River and its tributaries. Almost half of the nation’s municipal districts have vanished in the past 15 years because of such mergers, which are designed to cut administrative costs as the number of residents dwindles. The combined population of Yabu’s merged towns declined 41 percent to 26,501 in 2010, from 44,884 in 1960.
“It is a microcosm of many of the issues facing Japan,” said Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG in Tokyo. “Yabu is an example of how a local initiative can fight against vested interests and try to address the structural problems in the economy.”
Records show the area was producing silk more than a thousand years ago. By the 19th century, sericulture, as it’s known, was the key industry for the region. A book on the subject by local son Morikuni Uegaki was translated and published in France and Italy in 1848 and is regarded as one of Japan’s first exports of technology.
For more than half a century after U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to trade in 1854, the local silk-reeling factories boomed and raw silk was the country’s leading export as late as the 1930s. The industry declined during and after World War II, under competition from new artificial fibers like nylon, and the region turned to another resource: mining.
Prospectors had sought gold in the hills for centuries around the town of Sekinomiya. In 1909, miners found tin near the village of Akenobe, which soon became a boomtown as the deposit became the biggest source of the metal in Japan.
Hiromasa Saito, who used to work as an electrical engineer at the mine, remembers the days when new movies were played every week at the cinema, electricity and water were free, and the town attracted top artists Chiyoko Shimakura, known as “The Goddess of Enka,” a traditional Japanese music style.
Now Akenobe and other towns around Yabu are disappearing, said Saito, 65. “There are many marginal hamlets just like Akenobe. Something has to be done, before it’s too late.”
Today the area’s revenue is supplemented by tourism from the ski resorts in Hachibuse, a high plateau west of Yabu, where stone tools and pottery have been found dating back more than 10,000 years.
To stem the decline by going back to the land, Yabu needs to break free of the entrenched restrictions that dominate Japan’s agriculture. Companies wanting to own farmland must set up agricultural corporations subject to complex rules. The purchase of farmland must be approved by the farmers’ committee, providing a veto over admitting outsiders. Farmers also back the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives group, a powerful lobby that largely controls rice distribution and campaigns to maintain government price supports.
Yabu’s special-zone status clears the way to alter some of those restrictions and find a way to make the land more profitable, switching from rice to higher-value produce and adding processing and packaging operations to create employment.
“It’s a good thing that the name of Yabu has become known nationwide,” said Yukio Umetani, 65, a full-time farmer who grows rice and a local specialty pepper called “Asakura Sansho.” “Young people have moved to bigger cities and only old people have stayed. I’m all for it if new entrants work out well with local people.”
About a third of Umetani’s acre of farmland is untilled.
Still, nervousness about an influx of outsiders runs deep for locals like Yasunari Uegaki, a descendant of the silk pioneer Morikuni. At 48, he’s one of Yabu’s younger farmers. He breeds Tajima cattle, Japanese black calves raised to produce Kobe beef, as well as organic rice. Ducks that swim in his rice paddies are processed into smoked meat that he sells on the Internet.
“The city administration is too far ahead on the special zone and is leaving farmers behind,” Uegaki said. “We need to think about future generations, not just look at the next five or 10 years.”
Even before Yabu gained special-zone status, one company has been using the town to test new agricultural methods. A unit of the real-estate arm of ORIX Corp., a Tokyo-based financial services provider, converted an abandoned school gymnasium to grow lettuces under artificial light.
Plant Manager Hiroki Yoshida said he’s hired 14 locals and expects the special zone status to boost Yabu’s brand in Japan.
“If Yabu is successful in raising the living standard and improving production, then that will be a shining example to other communities around the country of how to make a major reform in the agricultural sector,” said Morgan Stanley’s Feldman. “It also will show people that you can raise the living standards and keep young people in the regional cities.”
For residents like Kurogoushi, who worked for more than 40 years at the Yabu tourist office, while most of his 6.5-hectares of terraces fell into disrepair, there’s little choice.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “It’s a ray of hope.”