Trip to Japan: My Experience with LIASE

Ivan Glinski, Economics & Asian Studies student at Bard


This summer, I spent four weeks in the often grueling heat of the Kantō region in Japan, working on an organic farm. Six days a week I would get driven in the morning to a rice field, which I would help weed together with my host family, into the afternoon. As I’d walk through the rows of protruding green rice stalks, the water would reach up to my knees. The train to Tokyo would pass at regular intervals, briefly interrupting the laughter of the children playing at the elementary school on the other side of the tracks. What had brought me here? While I had been interested in Japan for quite some time, my curiosity of economics, as an inquiry into human decision-making, was what got me to pack my bags. My question was two-fold: What are the unique social institutions that support small farms in Japan? Secondly, how can the formation of these institutions be encouraged, through interventions, in developing countries in Southeast Asia? While the second question is part of a larger line of research relating to my senior project, my work on the farm provided me with several clues.

I chose to study agriculture because of its historical significance of, through increasing efficiency, promoting urban industrialization through the creation of surplus labor. Though Japan had already undergone this process, the institutions that had promoted it were still in place. I was also interested in entrepreneurship in developing countries; the operations of a farm, as the most common small business, provide a window into that. Japan too, was a deliberate choice. Certainly, I had been studying Japanese for two years already and I was interested in improving my skills and getting a sense for life in the country. However, research wise, it also made a lot of sense. Japan is unique in many respects, geographically and historically, but it’s the country’s institutions that perhaps have been most influential and offer a key for developing countries. Its communal and hierarchical facets particularly stand out, providing a counter-argument to the notion that economic growth has to always be based on individual and radical innovation. However, talking in such broad strokes can often miss finer details. Focusing on this individual farm is my remedy.

I arrived at the farm, located in Chiba prefecture just across the bay from Tokyo, on the evening of June 5th. I specifically chose this location because the farmhands lived, ate, and worked together with the family. Yamano-San and his wife lived with their two children just out of town, with their house located on a hill overlooking a picturesque view of neverending rice paddies. They welcomed me at their dinner table, a low wooden table around which one would sit on a pillow, or a zabuton. Yamano-San told me that I would have to do a lot of “hard work” at the farm. He wasn’t wrong. That dinner was, like many of the meals that I would have there, simple and delicious. Rice was present at almost every meal during my month long stay, though occasionally substituted by noodles or by other special dishes. One of my favorites was takoyaki, a fried ball made from batter that contained vegetables and fried octopus. Sometimes it would also contain wasabi, but that was a dangerous game. Mornings would always be accompanied by an invigorating bowl of hot miso soup.

The daily work was often difficult, but working alongside my host family made the work feel honest and fair. Monday through Saturday, I would wake up around 6:45 to help in the morning clean-up and set-up for breakfast. I lived in one of the two upstair rooms – one was for girls and the other for guys. At any time there were between three and six volunteers living together on the Yamano farm. During my stay, I met with ten such volunteers. Some were from Japan, but most were international. After breakfast, we would all get driven to the fields that the family farmed, and begin our work. Unless it was raining, five hours would then be spent weeding the field, with a half hour break in between. The work was always the same, but it definitely took a while for me to become proficient at it. Everyone would be assigned three alleyways between stalks, to manage. One would then mix the floor of the field, especially around the stalks, pulling out any weeds that were growing. Then the job was to collect them as they floated to the surface, clump them, and bury them as deep as possible. Rinse, and repeat. Sometimes the weeds would grow right next to the rice and the main part of the job would become distinguishing between weed and rice. The pattern repeated and admittedly became tedious at times. We would often talk, to break the monotony. My Japanese was awkward and sometimes broken, but as time went on, I became more confident in the conversations I engaged in. This was where I learned most about how the farm operated. After work in the fields, we would return back to the house for lunch. Afternoon work followed, which usually alternated between cleaning the house, sorting rice, polishing bamboo, and cutting grass in the yard or on the Tagayasu farm (more on that below). Afternoon work would end a bit after 5 pm, after which there would be a break, followed by dinner. Through all of this, at least one member of the family would work with us. They put a tremendous amount of effort into their work; we were simply visitors, but this was their life.

On the last week of my stay, I had the opportunity to help organize a local organic farmers market that Yamano-San was a part of. I learned about the greater organic farming community in the area and how they cooperated to achieve shared goals. Actually, we had been helping prepare for the event for weeks. Most of this consisted of mowing grass at the Tagayasu farm to provide for pathways and areas for vendors to set-up. Closer to the date, we helped wash and prepare vegetables for salads that would be sold to attendees. Tagayasu was actually part of a network of farms in the Chiba area, with their main attraction being a restaurant in Tokyo itself that would serve food from the farms. On the day of the market, vendors came to sell everything from fresh cooked pizza to sweets and vegetables. I was tasked with setting up simple benches for attendees – a single plank of wood held up by two overturned plastic crates. Later, a group came for whom I set up a natural playground for children. All of the toys that were provided were recycled and reused household objects, with the main attraction being a series of everyday items that could be hit with mallets to produce sounds. This was all part of the organic lifestyle that Tagayasu, and its volunteers, advocated for.

Through understanding the rules by which the farm and the community operated by, I was able to better answer the questions that I had originally posed. The main problem that I encountered was that the Yamano farm was peculiar in its operations. Yamano-San prided himself in the fact that, unlike most farmers in the area, he didn’t use any chemical pesticides in his fields. This meant that a lot more work was required. Still, he was proud to remark that his rice was the most expensive in town because of its quality and the work put into it. He once stopped his car on the road back home to point out a field that had partially turned yellow, attributing it to chemicals. However, although he used traditional farming techniques, he was in every sense a modern farmer. He had originally lived in Tokyo and worked as a TV show producer. His primary reason for adopting this new lifestyle was a concern for the type of food that his children would be consuming. He wanted them to know the food they were eating and be able to fully appreciate it. Interestingly enough, it was his neighbors, families who had been farming for generations, who stuck to using chemical pesticides. In this sense, Japan has entered a post-modern era that functions on different principles from the time that farmers in developing countries are living in.

Yet there are some economic institutions that remain intertemporal. The importance of cooperation was definitely emphasized. Being able to host volunteers from around the world was what allowed the Yamano family to continue to grow rice organically. Moreover, the fields that they farmed were not actually theirs, but belonged to a local land-owning family. Their house had be built with the help of friends and the bamboo wood that they used to heat the house in the winter was donated by a neighbor. However, the best example was the congregation of organic farmers that occurred at Tagayasu farm. Research on endogenous economic growth shows that innovation occurs in locations where many people with the same type of knowledge assemble, such as Tagayasu farm. It was through his association with the group that Yamano-San was able to build his new home and start farming. Secondly, hierarchy was emphasized in the farming community. As I stated previously, the land that the Yamano family worked belonged to a prominent family in the area. Not only were they treated with respect, but as the junior farmer, Yamano-San had high expectations placed on him, especially since he was experimenting with different techniques. If the family judged that too many weeds were sprouting in the field, they had the right to use their pesticides on it. His beliefs and reputation were on the line, providing a strong incentive to continue weeding.

Hierarchy is often blamed in Japan for stifling individual entrepreneurship, yet in this case it prompted Yamano-San to look for more efficient ways to weed the fields, such as hiring international volunteers. Communal reputation can hold individuals accountable for their loans when institutions in the formal market fail. A common practice for banks in developing nations is to require individuals to pay their loans in a public setting, putting pressure on their reputation for them to pay. Such a mechanism is already worked into Japanese society. During my trip to Japan, I was able to engage in many cultural, professional, and research interests. This opportunity will help me better understand the processes of economic development as I continue researching towards my senior project.