Photos: Japan’s ageing rice farmers shoulder an uncertain future

A crop once deemed so important it served as a form of currency, Japanese rice has fallen out of favour with younger, westernised consumers, in a shift that has left ageing farmers struggling for survival. Rice consumption has nearly halved over the past 50 years, and as the older generation of farmers and consumers dies out, some fear the industry will be unable to hold its own in a competitive global market.

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST 10 Photos
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Japanese farmer Toshiko Ogura loads harvested rice by a combine in Kazo city, Saitama prefecture. Rice consumption has nearly halved over the past 50 years, and as the older generation of farmers and consumers dies out, some fear the industry will be unable to hold its own in a competitive global market. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Japanese farmer Toshiko Ogura loads harvested rice by a combine in Kazo city, Saitama prefecture. Rice consumption has nearly halved over the past 50 years, and as the older generation of farmers and consumers dies out, some fear the industry will be unable to hold its own in a competitive global market. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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Kazuo Ogura, a 66-year-old farmer, is one of the lucky ones. His son Yuichi (driving) decided to follow him into the family business. Ogura senior looks on proudly as his 38-year-old son uses a specially designed machine to plant this year’s harvest, splashing through golden paddy fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Kazuo Ogura, a 66-year-old farmer, is one of the lucky ones. His son Yuichi (driving) decided to follow him into the family business. Ogura senior looks on proudly as his 38-year-old son uses a specially designed machine to plant this year’s harvest, splashing through golden paddy fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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Rice seedling trays are seen on a truck before planting in Kazo city, Saitama prefecture. Surviving in this tough environment is all about “producing quality food at a reasonable price” and harnessing economies provided by large-scale production, Ogura told AFP. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Rice seedling trays are seen on a truck before planting in Kazo city, Saitama prefecture. Surviving in this tough environment is all about “producing quality food at a reasonable price” and harnessing economies provided by large-scale production, Ogura told AFP. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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Farmer Toshiko Ogura prepares rice seedling trays to plant on her paddy in Kazo. The future of Kazuo’s establishment in Kazo looks assured as Yuichi follows in his muddy footsteps but farms all over Japan are dying as farmers age -- the average age of a rice farmer is now 67. “I was the only one out of 220 students at my local school who went into farming,” Yuichi said. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Farmer Toshiko Ogura prepares rice seedling trays to plant on her paddy in Kazo. The future of Kazuo’s establishment in Kazo looks assured as Yuichi follows in his muddy footsteps but farms all over Japan are dying as farmers age -- the average age of a rice farmer is now 67. “I was the only one out of 220 students at my local school who went into farming,” Yuichi said. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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A farmer plants rice seedlings on her paddy in Kazo city. “There are not many people in their twenties who go into farming.” Even existing farms have been forced to close when their machinery breaks down. “Machines get more expensive every year. To replace them requires a certain level of profit but that’s difficult when you are farming a small plot,” Yuichi said. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

A farmer plants rice seedlings on her paddy in Kazo city. “There are not many people in their twenties who go into farming.” Even existing farms have been forced to close when their machinery breaks down. “Machines get more expensive every year. To replace them requires a certain level of profit but that’s difficult when you are farming a small plot,” Yuichi said. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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A farmer plants rice seedlings. The Oguras have managed to stay competitive so far by joining forces with two other families to farm around 100 hectares of rice fields -- nearly 100 times the size of the average plot. They sell their rice -- which belongs to the leading Koshihikari variety -- at 300 yen (USD 2.66) per kilogram. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

A farmer plants rice seedlings. The Oguras have managed to stay competitive so far by joining forces with two other families to farm around 100 hectares of rice fields -- nearly 100 times the size of the average plot. They sell their rice -- which belongs to the leading Koshihikari variety -- at 300 yen (USD 2.66) per kilogram. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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Farmer Toshiko Ogura prepares rice seedling trays. Although rice consumption in Japan has been falling for more than half a century, the crop’s exalted status in Japanese culture -- where it even serves a religious purpose in Shinto rituals -- has ensured its survival until now. Generous subsidies have made rice farming one of Japan’s most protected industries. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Farmer Toshiko Ogura prepares rice seedling trays. Although rice consumption in Japan has been falling for more than half a century, the crop’s exalted status in Japanese culture -- where it even serves a religious purpose in Shinto rituals -- has ensured its survival until now. Generous subsidies have made rice farming one of Japan’s most protected industries. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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Yuichi Ogura harvests rice. But Prime Minister Abe’s government scrapped the policy this year, urging farmers to become more competitive. Japanese agriculture is “at a turning point”, Ken Saito, farm minister until a reshuffle this month, told reporters. “Farmers have to think about producing food that sells. More than ever, they have to be attuned to the market.” (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Yuichi Ogura harvests rice. But Prime Minister Abe’s government scrapped the policy this year, urging farmers to become more competitive. Japanese agriculture is “at a turning point”, Ken Saito, farm minister until a reshuffle this month, told reporters. “Farmers have to think about producing food that sells. More than ever, they have to be attuned to the market.” (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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Farmer Mayumi Oya poses with harvested rice plants. And as Abe prepares for trade negotiations with US President Donald Trump, analysts say he may have to concede some ground on agriculture -- which could include Japan’s customary high tariffs on imported rice. But even a surge in cheaper imported varieties is unlikely to shift the palates of Japanese consumers, who generally prefer their home-grown variety. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

Farmer Mayumi Oya poses with harvested rice plants. And as Abe prepares for trade negotiations with US President Donald Trump, analysts say he may have to concede some ground on agriculture -- which could include Japan’s customary high tariffs on imported rice. But even a surge in cheaper imported varieties is unlikely to shift the palates of Japanese consumers, who generally prefer their home-grown variety. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST
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A farmer loads harvested rice. Fewer Japanese are eating rice in general, annual per capita consumption dropping to 54.6 kgs in 2015, less than half of its 1963 peak of 118.3 kg. Mitsuyoshi Ando, an agriculture expert at the University of Tokyo, said there was “no bright future” for the industry. And it is difficult to achieve economies of scale in mountainous areas -- where 40% of farming takes place. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

A farmer loads harvested rice. Fewer Japanese are eating rice in general, annual per capita consumption dropping to 54.6 kgs in 2015, less than half of its 1963 peak of 118.3 kg. Mitsuyoshi Ando, an agriculture expert at the University of Tokyo, said there was “no bright future” for the industry. And it is difficult to achieve economies of scale in mountainous areas -- where 40% of farming takes place. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP)

UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2018 10:03 AM IST

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