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Japanese abandoning farm lands

Programs seek to restore crops to buoy economy

The area of abandoned arable land in Japan has almost doubled in the past 20 years as the population gets older.

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg News

The area of abandoned arable land in Japan has almost doubled in the past 20 years as the population gets older.

YABU, Japan — Tomiyoshi Kurogoushi sighs as he looks over the terraced rice fields in the mountains of central Japan that were tended by generations of his family. Most are now covered in weeds and silver grass.

The area of land Kurogoushi still farms in Yabu, Hyogo prefecture, has shrunk to little more than a small plot around his house where he and his wife, Yoko, grow potatoes, cabbages, and carrots to feed themselves and his mother. Rather than sow rice, the 66-year-old works at a ski resort as a general manager.

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‘‘Farmland is deteriorating as people here are getting old,’’ said Kurogoushi, whose two daughters married and moved away. ‘‘Even though we have the land for farming, we can’t really keep doing it. Paddy fields have to be tilled or they’ll be ruined.’’

Across Japan, it’s the same story. The area of abandoned farmland has almost doubled in the past 20 years as the population gets older and young adults that grew up in rural areas such as Yabu move to the big cities to find work.

This sleepy community was thrust into the national spotlight after being chosen in March by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration as a test-bed for the revival of the nation’s declining provinces.

Along with five other areas, Yabu, 373 miles west of Tokyo, was designated as a strategic special zone, with the promise of loosened regulations in areas such as agriculture, medicine, and labor. The idea is to create development blueprints as part of Abe’s crusade to pull the country out of two decades of economic doldrums.

While most of the other zones are well-known regional centers of industry, agriculture, or tourism, Yabu is the dark horse, a little-known semi-mountainous area with a varied past spanning silk farming, tin mining, and rice cultivation.

‘‘Now is the last chance to revive agriculture,’’ said Sakae Hirose, mayor of Yabu. ‘‘In three to five years, the old farmers will lay down their plows, the farmland will be left uncultivated, and Yabu will fall into decline. We have to create an environment where new entrants can easily come in.’’

Like most provincial towns in Japan, the twin forces of emigration and a falling birth rate have hollowed out the community. By 2060, the government estimates, four out of 10 people in Japan will be 65 or older, up from a quarter now. In Yabu, it’s already a third, according to the 2010 census.

Yabu’s selection as a special zone was prompted by the determination of Hirose and his team to restructure farming practices to reverse that decline, said Heizo Takenaka, a member of a government council on the zones and a professor at Keio University. The mayor’s plans may include taking over authority for land sales from the farmer-run local agricultural committee.

‘‘We’re greatly impressed by Yabu’s enthusiasm and passion for reform,’’ Takenaka said at a seminar in Tokyo in April. ‘‘The special zone probably won’t be successful without this determination.’’

Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, met Hirose and farmers in Yabu on July 5 and said the area could become a model for other semi-mountainous regions, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.

Yabu’s municipal status was upgraded in 2004, when it was merged with a series of towns strung along the mountainous valleys of the Maruyama River and its tributaries. Almost half of the nation’s municipal districts have vanished in the past 15 years because of such mergers, which are designed to cut administrative costs as the number of residents dwindles. The combined population of Yabu’s merged towns declined 41 percent to 26,501 in 2010, from 44,884 in 1960.

‘‘It is a microcosm of many of the issues facing Japan,’’ said Robert Feldman, head of Japan economic research at Morgan Stanley MUFG in Tokyo. ‘‘Yabu is an example of how a local initiative can fight against vested interests and try to address the structural problems in the economy.’’

Records show the area was producing silk more than a thousand years ago. By the 19th century, sericulture, as it’s known, was the key industry for the region.

The industry declined during and after World War II, under competition from new artificial fibers such as nylon, and the region turned to another resource: mining.

Hiromasa Saito, who used to work as an electrical engineer at the mine, remembers the days when new movies were played every week at the cinema, electricity and water were free, and the town attracted top artists.

Now Akenobe and other towns around Yabu are disappearing, said Saito, 65. ‘‘There are many marginal hamlets just like Akenobe. Something has to be done before it’s too late,’’ he said.

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