Friday, December 14, 2007

A traditional industry ruined in rural Japan

The government has always cosseted farmers and small businesses...except when it didn't want to.

Before most of what was rich farmland was subsumed beneath exurban and suburban sprawl in the 1950's, the Sagami area (modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture) was a breadbasket of the southern Kantō plain. Agriculture in the greater Sagami area was mixed, with about 20% of production in wet rice, 50% in dry land cereals and 15% in vegetables, beans and root crops.

From the 17th century on, one Sagami plain upland town, the town of Hadano, specialized in a non-food crop brought to Japan in the 16th century: tobacco. During the Edo Period Hadano tobacco was a favorite of Edoites, including, it is rumored, the sybarites of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters. As the tobacco growing area closest to the capital, Hadano certainly had an advantage over other tobacco growing areas in terms of the prices it could charge for its production.

Mt. Fuji above the Hadano plateau
Hadano City, Kanagawa Prefecture
December 9, 2007

The end of sakoku policies and the resulting ability to import tobaccos from outside Japan did not lead to a collapse of the Hadano growing industry. Indeed, the rise of the Tokyo and Yokohama metropoles, growing populations and social mobility throughout the country and the establishment of road and rail networks led to a rapid rise in the consumption of tobacco products--and increased prosperity for the people of Hadano. In 1887, 700 hectares in Hadano were planted in tobacco. A decade later, in 1897, the area under cultivation had doubled to 1400 hectares.

While most of the industry's production was primitive and home-based, with families manning the fields, drying sheds and sorting and cutting houses, Hadano Town had, again in 1897, at least twelve factories employing at least 10 workers-- an anomalous, small-scale, non-government-led industrialization of a rural community.

The bustling agriculture-based, small-enterprise, free market capitalist industry of Hadano went into terminal decline after 1897, however. The culprit was neither disease nor foreign competition but the heavy hand of government.

The passage in 1898 of the Tobacco Monopoly Law centralizing tobacco distribution and sales and the passage of a similar law in 1904 regarding production led to limits on the areas farmers could plant in tobacco and the prices farmers could charge. It forced the closure of the small local factories and production facilities. The Hadano industrial base withered: production knowledge and workers were lost to the government's large facilities, the price controls led to the land becoming more valuable for activities other than tobacco growing. Eventually Hadano's tobacco production was replaced by production from other areas or by imports.

Today one can find mikan groves, long rows of vegetables and even the raising of farm animals in Hadano City. No one grows tobacco, not even on a demonstration farm. The only physical remains of the industry is a stela, erected upon a crest of a ridge where the tobacco farmers used to gather the autumn leaves they needed to mulch and fertilize the soil of their tobacco plots.

Memorial stela to the Hadano tobacco industry and JIC members at the site
Hadano City, Kanagawa Prefecture
December 9, 2007
Photo credit: MTC / TBP 2007

So if anyone ever starts a sentence, "Rationalize agricultural production? Forget it. The Japanese government has always protected its farmers and small businessmen..."


Hadano Stela text.

Takamura Naosuke, Ueyama Kazuo, Kokaze Hidemasa and Ōmameuda Minoru, Kanagawaken no Hyakunen: kenmin hyakunenshi 14 (Tokyo: Yamaka Shuppan, 15 June 1984), p. 82-84.

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