Daiki Tanaka, a young entrepreneur who started his business in Kyoto's countryside. Photo: d:matcha Kyoto

Japan’s slow but steady shift towards sustainable agriculture

Farming for the younger Japanese generation is a conscious calculated decision rather than a goal that is inherited, which often puts new farmers at odds with their traditional counterparts.
Farming for the younger Japanese generation is a conscious calculated decision rather than a goal that is inherited, which often puts new farmers at odds with their traditional counterparts.

“Conventional farmers dislike organic farming or anything that breaks away from the norm,” said Daiki Tanaka, a young entrepreneur who founded his business in the countryside. Looking to live a healthier lifestyle, as well as to preserve the traditional methods of tea farming, he moved from Tokyo to Kyoto’s countryside. There he would meet the same hurdles a whole new generation of young farmers are facing to transform the way things have always been done in Japan.

It’s not easy for newcomers to the countryside. Accessing or even purchasing land in rural Japan is often a daunting task. Sometimes they are given plots of land that are further away from the town centre or located in areas deemed less desirable. In addition to that, they have to deal with the impacts of climate change.

Most recently, Tanaka had planned to revitalise a portion of the town through the construction of a new communal facility. While he had received the initial approval and grant to proceed, his plans were still met with resistance by a handful of local residents at the eleventh hour.

“The countryside is still very traditional, so the younger generation definitely finds it harder to adapt or share new ideas,” Daiki continues. “This is why we tend to focus on organic farming in fields that are isolated. Ideally, we would like to expand these farming methods to our other farms in the region as well.”

Generation gap

An associate professor at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kenichor Onitsuka, says this is a common problem faced by ‘newcomers’ to the countryside. “Currently, there is often a big gap in the mindset between ‘new’ and ‘original’ residents, which sometimes triggers conflict between [the two groups].” 

This includes the attempt to address climate change through regenerative farming. Professor Onitsuka elaborates, “However, to achieve better and sustainable rural life, ‘original’ residents also need to change their way of thinking.” 

Chuck Kayser explaining the different vegetables available on Midori Farm in Shiga Prefecture. Photo: Ryhan M Yazid

Weathering climate change

Finding himself drawn to the charms of rural Japan, Chuck Kayser had initially planned on purchasing a piece of land to build a cabin. While the initial goal was eventually realised, the 22 years he took to reach that point saw him falling in love with farming. This, however, also made him privy to the changes in climate. “I have absolutely noticed. [Climate change] is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with.”

“The environment is a huge source of everything for us,” Chuck Kayser voices pensively. “The natural environment is subject to so many things, and…this means more trial and error.”

Most recently, last year’s abnormally warm winter had Chuck and his peers grasping at straws. Chuck elaborates, “This change has been coming over the past six years but this past winter shocked all the local residents to their core. People were walking around as if aliens had landed, they had lived through 70+ winters of very heavy snowfall. While there are some ‘positive’ outcomes to an extended growing season, there are also more threats.”

Vincent Ng, owner of Mosaic Farm in Kyoto Prefecture, shares the same gripe; lamenting the drastic change in weather conditions over the course of the year. Citing the unnaturally long rainy season and dry spell, he predicts that the coming winter will be much harsher than the previous year’s. 

“When there is too much snow, access to the roads are blocked off almost completely. This also means the extreme cold weather could potentially affect the crops in the village,” he says. 

Mosaic Farm, run by the team who also operate Mosaic Hostel in central Kyoto. Photo: Mosaic Farm

Paving the way forward

Ng’s connection to the countryside was initially based on providing tours for his guests at Mosaic Hostel. “We initially started with conducting tours for our hostel guests. This arrangement helped the farmers while meeting the demand for tourists seeking to experience Japan’s countryside.” Vincent explains.

When the pandemic hit and the number of guests rapidly declined, he made the call to switch to farming. With the hostel still serving as his main office space, Vincent and his team head up to the north of Kyoto twice to three times a week. “I don’t see myself stopping even after the tourism sector returns to normal. Once you get started with agriculture, you experience a lot of hidden benefits you would not have normally associated with farming at the beginning.”

The farming done on his patch of land is completely organic, with even hops they’ve processed being recycled as organic fertiliser. This luxury is, perhaps, available due to his team’s younger demographics. The hurdle of having to convince elderly folk of using new methods of farming even in light of drastic changes in the weather is still evident. 

Regardless of whether new farmers in Japan are where they are by choice or by accident, they almost inevitably fall in love with the craft. Not only does this hold great prospects for Japan’s agriculture, but it will also serve as a bridge between tradition and the climate challenges of the 21st century. If younger farmers can motivate their peers and their predecessors on how indispensable the two are, this would make for an even greener rural Japan.