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Changes in rural communities
The utilization of new information and communication technology by next generation farmers

Yukinaga Nishihara
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Issues brought about by changes in rural communities

Japan’s rural communities are undergoing profound changes. The 2010 census showed an 11.2% drop in the total number of farming households from 2005, with Japan’s farming population down 22.3%. Although partially in response to political pressure, farmers are becoming a minority in rural communities. The generation that sustained Japanese agriculture for decades—those born in the late 1920s and early 1930s—are aging and headed for retirement.

What issues do researchers of agricultural economics foresee accompanying these changes?

For me, there are two aspects to this discussion. One is a theory based on institutional design that promotes large-scale farms and efficient farming methods grounded in technological advancements. The other is the creation of support systems that contribute to endogenous development in disadvantaged regions. These include regions with cold climate and limited crops and slopes left behind during agricultural expansion.

One of my research interests is finding an integrated approach that embraces both of these approaches—one that incorporates agricultural water systems and the people, organizations, and policies needed to keep them running. Despite the fact that water is essential to agricultural production, procuring it is not something that can be done on the open market.

No matter how vast a cultivation area becomes, securing water requires investment from government agencies or communities.Traditionally, agricultural water supply has been protected by rural communities. During the Showa period (1926–1989), theories on waterway management work (mura-shigoto, or “village work”) were the only aspect of agricultural production that did not change during Japan's modernization, an aspect that differed from Western agricultural methods. Taken into context, we are now approaching the gradual collapse of Japan's waterway management culture.

Technical approach and economic value

Given these circumstances, we are now seeing the gradual emergence of new trends in agricultural economists’ approach to rural research. The new methods consider the relationship between technological developments and community-building activities in regards to economic efficiency.

Between 2009 and 2011, I participated in damage investigations and workshops for the development of future waterway management plans in the Nogawa river basin, located in the city of Nagai, Yamagata Prefecture. Meanwhile, we were able to identify the process by which information was communicated from workshops centered in leading farming households to the entire village, including elderly retired farmers. Our research results were published as the Guide to Using Research Results to Maintain the Functionality of Irrigation Facilities [Nogyo Suiri Shisetsu no Kino Hozen no tame no Kenkyu Seika no Katsuyo no Tebiki], prepared by the National Institute for Rural Engineering, and have been utilized as valuable clues to ways of building consensus among local residents.

Our research demonstrates the importance of close communication between agricultural landowners and tenants. We are now seeing major farming operations leasing fields from dozens of landholders as agricultural management expands. It is of great significance that we have clearly defined the existence of networks that will become increasingly vital as rural villages evolve.

Irrigation channels shown via geospatial information system (GIS). Damaged areas were identified during workshops.

Since 2012, we have been hosting workshops in the Aichi irrigation basin on the implementation of information-communications technology (ICT) for large-scale rice growers who serve as leaders in the local farming community, as well as for land improvement districts, which are irrigation management organizations designed to support rice farmers. Obstacles such as cost and wireless communications must be addressed, but the best time to do this is likely with the coming of a new generation of agricultural managers. When this generation of seasoned farmers with extensive expertise gives way to a new generation of managers, it is likely that communities will rapidly upgrade their technology.

Meanwhile, it is likely that the introduction of technologies will provide land improvement districts (specialized irrigation management groups) with new opportunities to participate in an integrated management of irrigation channels and agricultural land.

Should rice cultivation undergo a transformation, peripheral organizations and systems will be forced to change. Collaboration among researchers and economists specializing in technological development drives home the significance of agricultural studies as an applied science.

The role of education

The current state of agriculture offers one more possible approach for agricultural economists. In my mind, the benefits of this attractive method go beyond simple research.

This approach incorporates interaction among rural villages and university students through education activities. Waseda University offered a Rural Field Studies course in 2003—a program that offered students firsthand experience in agricultural communities. Though the course was originally designed as a way to increase the number of young people that actually went into Japan’s rural communities, some students that participated ended up going into careers as agricultural workers or local public servants. The program has also produced specialists in the fields of food and agriculture, in addition to those working with agricultural communities. Some students went on to work as product developers at food companies. And some, like me, ended up becoming researchers specializing in agriculture. There is mutual interaction between students and study sites such as the Matsudai area of Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture or the village of Tashiro in Sagae, Yamagata Prefecture, and we invite participants every year to set up food stalls on Homecoming Day.

The tools we use to communicate are social networking sites such as Facebook that allow students of different ages to organize, freely communicate with farming households, and interact in various ways. Some students even travel back to sites where they studied on the weekends, and I’ve seen graduates rush back during times of heavy snowfall. I think that the Waseda course is contributing to the formation of a new kind of interaction between urban and rural areas.

Agricultural economics research is changing—from estimating production functions or studying movement in the workforce to the design of more concrete systems and assessing the diffusion of technology. Meanwhile, frameworks that sustain our ties to rural villages are being constructed as education and research becomes more integrated. Waseda has been involved in this approach. In the future, I hope to present innovative research that grows from these relationships.

Overview of an irrigation management support system (prepared by the Laboratory of Water Environment Engineering at the University of Tokyo Graduate School)

Yukinaga Nishihara
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Nishihara was born in Ehime Prefectures in 1983 and is a graduate of Waseda's School of Political Science and Economics. He completed his doctorate at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences with a PhD in agricultural science. He secured a DC1 fellowship from Japan Society for Promotion of Science, working as project researcher at the University of Tokyo before accepting his current position in April 2015. Among his works he co-authored Grab Your Books and Head out to the Village: Waseda’s Rural Field Studies Course (Waseda University Press, 2011). His primary research paper was “A Social experimental study on commitment of community members to irrigation maintenance: A DID Approach to Estimate Effects of an Agenda-Finding Workshop on Communication” (co-authored, published in the Special Issue of the Journal of Rural Economics 2012, Agricultural Economics Society of Japan).