BACK TO THE LAND IN JAPAN

Arik Roper hipped us to this piece from page one of today’s Wall Street Journal:

Solution to Japan’s Jobless Problem: Send City Workers Back to the Land

By YUKA HAYASHI
Wall Street Journal – PAGE ONE – APRIL 15, 2009

MASUTOMI, Japan — Kenji Oshima lost his job in February at a seat-belt factory. So he applied for a highly competitive job-training program in an area he felt had more potential: farming.

The 35-year-old, dressed in his old factory uniform, spent a recent morning in a remote village three hours from Tokyo. He was digging an irrigation ditch around a rice paddy, contemplating which tool was more effective, a hoe or a shovel.

“I know it’s a hard life” compared with his former job as a bookkeeper, Mr. Oshima said. “But I want to become a farmer and use my own hands to do everything, from sowing seeds to shipping boxes.” He hopes to soon rent land nearby to start farming full time.

As the global financial crisis sinks Japan into its worst recession since World War II and hundreds of thousands of jobs are slashed in factories and offices, farming has emerged as a promising new career track. “Agriculture Will Save Japan,” blared a headline for a business weekly magazine. Farmer’s Kitchen, a popular new Tokyo restaurant, plasters its walls with posters of hunky farmers who supply the eatery with organic vegetables.

Seeing agriculture as one of the few industries that could generate jobs right now, the government has earmarked $10 million to send 900 people to job-training programs in farming, forestry and fishing. Japan’s unemployment rate was 4.4% in February, up from 3.9% a year earlier, but still lower than the U.S. or Europe. Some economists expect the figure to rise to a record 8% or so within the next couple of years.

Policy makers are hoping newly unemployed young people will help revive Japan’s dwindling farming population, where two in three full-time farmers are 65 or older. Of Japan’s total population, 6% work in agriculture, most doing so only part time, down from about 20% three decades ago.

“If they can’t find young workers over the next several years, Japan’s agriculture will disappear,” said Kazumasa Iwata, a government economist and former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan.

Mr. Oshima and eight other young prospects, including a software engineer and a former teacher, snared spots in a 10-day state-funded program after beating out 110 other applicants and writing passionate essays about their interest in farming.

But life in the sticks is no vacation. The nine trainees in Masutomi, a mountain village with 650 residents, were housed in an abandoned inn with a single bathroom with no shower or flush toilet. With no mirror in sight, one trainee struggled to put in his contact lenses. They huddled around a single kerosene heater in the kitchen when the temperature dipped below zero.

“On my first day, I went to sleep feeling cold and woke up feeling cold,” said Mami Hinataze, a 23-year-old woman from a Tokyo suburb who worked at a cafe until recently. Later, Ms. Hinataze learned to use six layers of covers to keep warm at night.

Then there was the grueling workload, which included setting up a greenhouse and collecting chicken droppings from a poultry farmer to use as fertilizer. One afternoon, the trainees tackled weed-picking with enthusiasm, competing to see who could dig up the largest clump. But soon, the conversation turned to a nearby hot spring they all wished they could visit to ease their achy muscles.

“It’s kind of tiring, I mean mentally, to get covered with dirt,” said Hironari Ota, a 25-year-old who used to work at an online retailer. Mr. Ota, the son of a Tokyo pawnshop owner, said he still wasn’t sure he wanted to become a full-time farmer, but liked the idea of having a job that didn’t require handling money.

Read the rest at the WSJ website

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