Economics & Business

Technological change in Japanese agriculture

Change in technology is divided into three parts, i.e.
1. Pre-World war 1. A period of rapid growth lasting from approximately the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868) until the end of World War I.
2. Interwar .A period of rapid growth lasting from approximately the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868) until the end of World War I.
3. Post-World War 2. A new period of rapid growth, starting almost immediately after the end of World War II and continuing to the mid 1960s

(1) Changes in technology were closely related to factor inputs, particularly those of capital goods. Adoption of new kinds of implements, and their rapid diffusion took place mostly in period 1. Increased productivity in pre-war agriculture (Period 1) was due to short soled plows, rotary weeders, and foot pedal rotary threshers. They played a large role in raising the agricultural productivity accompanied by land improvements, new varieties of seeds, and increasing use of fertilizers, which not only saved labor, but also raised yields. Even foot pedal rotary threshers enabled farmers to prepare for second crops to get larger yields, thus avoiding any diversion of their efforts during the busiest season.

(2) Motorization of farm implements, particularly in pumping water for irrigation and drainage and in rotary threshers, began in period 2. There was a surplus of labor in the agricultural sector. Farmers diversified and intensified their farming with second crops, raising of livestock and poultry and the processing of farm products. Through out the pre-war period emphasis was on increasing the efficiency of land at the cost of labor efficiency. Land improvement at first was aimed to make the horse plowing easier. However, it soon became a means for better irrigation and drainage. New varieties of rice which responded well to fertilizers were used widely. Use of fertilizers such as soybean cake and later inorganic chemicals also started Manure was used in an increasing amount along with the increasing use of fertilizers. Practices such as regular planting of rice seedlings, laborious ridding of moth and eggs of rice borers and careful paddy weeding also raised the yield.

(3) Efficiency of labor increased dramatically in this period. This was due to rapid mechanization. Number of power tillers amounted to 2.2mil in 1965 whereas it was 88,840 in 1955. Such speedy mechanization was the result of an increasing exodus of population from villages to urban areas and the increase of part time farmers. Efficiency of land was low. This was because the size of farm in Japan is still very small and is kept from growing by various restrictions, including the complicated irrigation system and the land law. Before the war(Period 1 and 2) only the hulling and threshing processes were mechanized and irrigation in some region was mechanized. It was a true sign of progress that field works were mechanized after the war. Thus the power tiller became the post-war star of mechanization. It had to be the sort which was suitable for use on small farm. Since the fields belonging to a farm were fragmented into several or sometimes more than ten, groups of field-lots each having a different shape and elevation. The most popular type of power tiller was one which could break soil with tines fixed to a wheel. This saved a lot of labor, however the yield dint rise much because it could not till deeper then old Japanese plows. For increasing yields(large amount of fertilizers, agricultural chemicals and timely irrigation). Fundamentals of technological changes do not seem to have changed, however, further industrialization……


Japan was the 1st Asian country to succeed in bringing about a striking transformation in the productivity of its agriculture. In contrast to the United States, agricultural development in Japan occurred within a framework of increasing labor intensity. The average size of the Japanese farm was approximately 1 hectare (2.2 acres) in 1878 and 0.8 hectare (1.7 acres) in 1962.
In many respects, the Japanese experience was the outcome of factors peculiar to the Japanese environment. Japan is an island economy, and social institutions had been cultivated and refined over generations to permit an efficient balance between population and a limited resource base.
Despite other differences, at the time of the “takeoff”, Japanese agricultural development was similar in many respects to that of other countries in Asia-a traditional agriculture characterized by small scale subsistence farms dominated by a hierarchical social structure. The level of productivity in Japanese agriculture prior to the Meiji Restoration (1868), as measured by yields per hectare or per person, were probably only slightly higher than the levels of productivity that persist today throughout the rest of Asia

The remarkable feature of the Japanese agricultural transformation, and the feature that makes it of special interest in the rest of Asia today, is that it took place within a traditional framework of small scale agriculture. Although the average farm was declining in size, the average rice yield rose from 1.8 metric tons per hectare (1868 to 1882) to 4.0 metric tons in the late 1950s and 5.8 metric tons in the mid 1970s.

During this development, Japanese agriculture went through 4 phases (Table 6):
4. A period of rapid growth lasting from approximately the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868) until the end of World War I.

5. A period of slower growth lasting from the end of World War I through World War II.

6. A new period of rapid growth, starting almost immediately after the end of World War II and continuing to the mid 1960s.

7. A period of slower growth since the mid 1960s.

Productivity Growth From Intensification of Traditional Agriculture, 1870-1920
The rapid increase in Japanese agricultural productivity between 1870 and 1920 was due to the diffusion of the superior practices already in use in Japanese traditional agriculture combined with the limited adoption of Western methods, primarily soil and fertilizer science adopted from Germany.
The basic agricultural policy of the new Meiji Government, established in 1868, developed around the ideas of Lord Iwakura, who visited North America and Europe in 1871 and 1873. Iwakura’s visits were followed by tours made by other Japanese officials, and western agricultural experts were invited to Japan. At first, most of these experts came from the United States and England. Later, experts from Germany were invited. The Japanese officials who returned to Japan from western countries stressed the need for raising the level of Japanese agriculture to that of the West by adopting western-style extensive farming in place of small-scale intensive farming. It became apparent, however, that instead of the large-scale farm-management techniques developed in North America and England, the knowledge and techniques of Germany, particularly the new knowledge of soils and fertilizers, would become more realistic and practical in application to the small-scale Japanese agriculture. Only in the northern island of Hokkaido did extensive farming based on livestock production and western-style “horse mechanization” find a permanent home.

In 1887, a new agricultural policy was adopted that shifted emphasis away from introducing western farming methods to bolstering traditional farming methods. There were 3 major elements in this new policy:
1. Selection and diffusion of high-yielding cultivars of rice
2. The establishment of a fertilizer-consuming agriculture
3. Introduction and diffusion of new cultural practices and implements

These 3 policies were closely interrelated. The new rice cultivators selected were those that responded well to nitrogen fertilizer. Such cultural practices as deep plowing, double cropping, straight-row planting, revision of field layouts, irrigation and drainage, and others were also oriented toward obtaining a favorable response from increased fertilization. Table 7 traces the evolution of the use of fertilizer in one Japanese prefecture from 1877 to 1957.

These policies were effective for several reasons. Over the preceding 300 years of the Tokugawa period, agricultural techniques had been slowly improving, but the restraints of the feudal system had suppressed the diffusion of new techniques. Under the feudal system, peasants were bound to their land and not allowed to leave their villages except for religious pilgrimages. Nor were they free to choose which crops to plant or which cultivars to sow. The feudal lords were anxious to raise agricultural productivity in their own territories, but they frequently prohibited the transfer of techniques or cultivars outside their bounds. It is even recorded that 1 village placed a guard at its border to prevent a variety of seed selected in the village from being taken out.

A 2nd factor in the success of the Meiji agricultural policy was the pattern of investment in agricultural education by the government. Agricultural schools were organized as early as 1876. An agricultural experiment station and seed breeding station was established in 1877 10 years before the U.S. Congress passed the Hatch Act, which established experiment stations in each state. By 1900, Japan had developed a number of national research institutions as well as a network of experiment stations at the prefecture level.

Initially, the most successful “veteran farmers” were used to carry improved techniques to other farmers in their own and in other prefectures. By 1893, 11 years before the establishment of the federal-state extension service in the United States, the prefectural experiment stations were given responsibility for formal extension activity.

Thus the prefectural experiment stations became extension centers for the dissemination of new knowledge to associations of village farmers. Failure to adopt improved technologies was frequently punished by fines or arrest. This obviously created a somewhat different level of receptivity than the county agents in the United States faced when they began their work in 1914.

Stagnation of Traditional Agriculture, 1920-1946
Shortly after World War I, Japan appeared to have reached the limit of agricultural development that could be attained by using traditional methods. The rate of growth of agricultural output declined. Food shortages developed in the face of a growing urban population. Whereas agriculture had been a major source of support for Japan’s industrial revolution during the Meiji era, it now became a depressed area in the economy. The land-tenure system placed increased burdens on the tenants and dampened incentives to produce.

A number of significant changes took place during this period. Agricultural land development was pushed into marginal areas. Farmers began to shift their production away from rice into the even more labor-intensive livestock production, silkworm raising (sericulture), and fruit and vegetable production. The shift away from rice was partly in response to the lowering of prices that resulted from the importation of rice from Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea.

The rapid shift of farm workers from agricultural to nonagricultural employment during the period was not sufficient to reduce the size of the agricultural labor force. Farm employment did decline, however, from roughly 40% of the labor force at the beginning of the period to less than 20% by the beginning of World War II.

By the beginning of World War II, Japanese agriculture was again beginning to experience rapid economic growth. During the war, however, agriculture suffered from shortages of labor and materials. Availability of commercial fertilizer dropped sharply. The yield of rice fell in 1945 to only about 70% of the prewar level.

The Modernization of Japanese Agriculture
Following World War II Japanese agriculture experienced a new burst of productivity. 2 factors appeared to have been particularly important.

1. The increased incentive to produce, which resulted from the land reform of 1947-1950.
2. The backlog of modern technology resulting from the increased sophistication of experiment-station research and the increased industrial capacity that emerged from World War II.

The postwar land reform represented the culmination of land improvement that began during the Meiji restoration rather than any sharp break with the past. All farmland owned by absentee landlords and all farmland leased by resident landlords in excess of 4 hectares was appropriated by the government and sold to the actual tenants. About 2 million hectares, approximately 80% of the tenant-cultivated land, was acquired by tenant farmers. The result was a major improvement in incentives to adopt new technology and increase production

The change in agricultural technology since World War II can be illustrated by the following. The new rice cultivars being planted in Japan today are the result of experiment station breeding programs designed to produce high yielding, disease resistant varieties that respond well to fertilization. This is in contrast to the basis of selection that prevailed during the Meiji period, when the best cultivars were selected from the many already in existence. The new breeding programs, however, did not depart in their objective from that of the older selection programs. The varietal improvements and associated cultural practices continued to be directed toward the development of a “fertilizer consuming rice culture.”

The increased capacity of Japanese industry to produce fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals has complemented this traditional objective. There has, however, been 1 major change. As a result of Japan’s continued rapid industrial development, the agricultural labor force began to decline in the 1950s. Agricultural wage rates have risen. Small scale mechanization, including the use of power sprayers and dusters and the use of electric motors and internal combustion engines for threshing and pumping irrigation water, has expanded rapidly. Most striking of all has been the rapid small scale mechanization of plowing and other field operations. The use of mechanized equipment for field operations was trivial before World War II, but by 1960 there were half a million small tractors or cultivators in use. By the 1970s, this small scale equipment was being replaced by larger land preparation and tillage equipment.

A major problem of structural reform in Japanese agriculture is how to increase the size of the farm operating unit in an equitable manner. Programs of assistance for land consolidation and cooperative use of farm equipment have been implemented. The Farmers’ Pension Fund is authorized to purchase agricultural land from older farmers and sell it to farmers who want to enlarge their farms. The fund can also assist in financing the purchase of land from retiring farmers.

The Significance of Japanese Agricultural Development
This history of Japanese agricultural development illustrates how the agricultural sector of the economy was able to fulfill its traditional role in the strategy of overall development. Japanese agriculture, in the course of its transformation, was able to earn foreign exchange, to provide savings and investment for a developing urban industrial sector, and to supply raw materials and foodstuffs for the rest of the economy.

Most significant of all, this was achieved within a system of small scale, labor intensive farming made possible by placing greater emphasis upon the “biological revolution” than upon the “mechanical revolution.” In the next several decades, as the Japanese agricultural labor force declines, it seems likely that Japanese agriculture will successfully complement the “biological revolution” of the last 100 years with a “mechanical revolution,” leading to a fully modern system of agriculture. The Japanese example, with its initial stress on the “biological revolution,” represents a more valid model for many of the developing economies than the United States model.

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Tariq Aftab Hussain

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