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Japan is reshaping agriculture with technology

Be it picking strawberries or experimentation in mechanized farming, the human workforce is shrinking radically
This picture taken on May 8, 2022, shows farmer Shinichiro Saito posing on a rice planter in a paddy field on Sado island, Niigata prefecture in Japan

This picture taken on May 8, 2022, shows farmer Shinichiro Saito posing on a rice planter in a paddy field on Sado island, Niigata prefecture in Japan. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 14, 2023 04:02 AM GMT
Updated: April 14, 2023 04:21 AM GMT

Japan's agricultural sector has been facing a workforce shortage for many years due to the country's aging population. While the solution adopted abroad has been to import immigrant workers, mostly from third-world countries, the Japanese government is now looking towards a more cost-effective and practical solution: mechanization.

The rise of automation and mechanization has been transforming many industries, and agriculture is no exception. As a result, many farms in Japan are turning to technology to address the workforce shortage. A good example is Ishihara Food, a factory in the western prefecture of Kyushu.

After being founded in 1976 as a vegetable wholesaler, the company entered the frozen vegetable business with the ambition to ship delicious Miyazaki vegetables all over Japan.

They initially had many farms under contract, but in time many closed due to the difficulty in procuring the necessary workforce. The goal was not having to submit to the harsh law of numbers and those that say that rural Japan is in fact disappearing.

In 2020, some 250,000 people engaged in agriculture and the average age was 67.7 years. Only 23,000 people were under 49 years, which meant 70 percent of farm workers were over 65 years of age. These numbers are frightening enough to have put the whole sector on high alert.

I met a 35-year-old woman, Shoko Ishihara, who took over the family business at Ishihara two years ago. She has an interesting story behind her, as she arrived in the private sector from the public sector.

"It was getting harder and harder to import labor from abroad, especially during the pandemic"

Shoko previously helped support the reconstruction of Ishinomaki, in Miyagi prefecture, one of the centers most affected by the great tsunami of 2011. And she had given a full five years of her life as a social worker helping the reconstruction effort.

Seeing people living in the disaster area after losing their jobs in the tsunami made her decide to take over the family business.

But while it was getting harder and harder to import labor from abroad, especially during the pandemic, over the years the mechanization process has grown steadily. 

In the past 15 years, staffing levels at Ishihara farm has been reduced by more than 90 percent. From about 50 employees, they’re down to three or four today. One may think that the production was going bad but the opposite is true.

At Ishihara farm, they have put QR codes almost everywhere that you scan while standing. What appears on the screen may have been considered a pure miracle only three generations ago. The whole process of everyday labor is decided by software that instructs the few remaining employees what to do and when.

Twenty years ago when they first thought of replacing humans with digital technology in the fields, they started by creating a network for field management of a total of 500 hectares in 750 locations. Smartphones are used to manage all processes including work records, growing conditions and quantities of agrochemicals used.

This move towards mechanization in the agricultural sector has several benefits. For one, it saves money on labor costs. Machines do not require salaries or benefits (just maintenance), and they can work round the clock without the need for breaks. Additionally, machines are easier to deal with than people, especially when they are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which can create communication and cultural barriers that require additional resources to overcome.

"By raising the ground level of strawberry plants, harvesting became more convenient and served also as a disaster prevention measure"

However, there are also potential downsides. One concern is the impact on employment. While machines can increase efficiency and reduce labor costs, they also replace human workers, potentially leading to job losses. This could exacerbate existing social conditions, particularly in rural areas where opportunities are already limited.

I also visited the Hinata Ichigoen in Miyazaki. The farm's mission statement was to become Japan's top strawberry producer.

Ippei Nagatomo, the founder, had discovered that by raising the ground level of strawberry plants, harvesting became more convenient and served also as a disaster prevention measure against the recurring typhoons in the prefecture.

With this method, Hinata Ichigoen has successfully produced 42 tons of strawberries with just 15 employees, making it the largest strawberry producer in the prefecture.

But unlike Ishihara Food, they have one foreign employee, a 23-year-old Vietnamese girl. She came with high expectations of Japan as a student and might even be able to stay in Japan for a long time but not many of her compatriots are likely to follow in her footsteps.

The trend is set. Be it a more agile method to pick strawberries or be it the already-on-the-way experimentation in mechanized farming the actual number of field workers in Japanese farms is going to shrink radically.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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