Worlds apart—Japan’s urban and rural experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic

For the most part, Japan has been hailed as a COVID-19 success story, although the reasons for the success have been difficult to explain. Despite a severe lack of public testing, Tokyo (the epicenter of the outbreak) saw an increase of only 12% in mortality rate during the height of known infections in April1, the fewest of any Group of Seven nation.  A number of theories have emerged as to why this may be (cultural familiarity with social distancing and mask-wearing, healthier elderly population), but it may be some time before a conclusion is reached.

Whatever the reasons, the pandemic did bring massive change to everyday life. The entire nation was under a state of emergency with most major prefectures designated as special alert areas and, for better or worse, lockdown was in full effect. Schools were cancelled and parents juggled home-schooling with new telework responsibilities, but also enjoyed the extra time afforded from the absence of a daily commute and mind-numbing meetings2. Consumer cooperatives, already a societal institution boasting large memberships, saw sharp increases in the number of orders and new memberships over the lockdown as most deliver food directly to homes3. Living space in urban Japan is notoriously cramped and for many this new arrangement was constricting4. As in many countries, the lockdown-induced widespread adoption of telework has prompted reflection on work culture and how living and working in the city and the countryside might unfold in the future.

Japanese supermarket adaptations during COVID-19

The Japanese countryside suffers from intense depopulation and has long been somewhere to escape from to settle in Tokyo, Osaka, or Fukuoka. At the same time, it has been a destination for those looking to escape the rat-race, enjoy nature, and raise a family. For an increasing number of young people, the pandemic convinced them to look to the countryside for work5. Rural in-migration has experienced boom periods in the past, giving rise to a unique nomenclature of different “turners”, and if recent trends are any indication, another influx of rural in-migrants seems inevitable. One non-profit organization that provides information for rural in-migrants has seen a 4x increase in the number of inquiries over the last five years6. In particular, teleworking would enable splitting time between two homes, one in the city and one in the countryside, resulting in a rise of “O-turners” (moving back and forth between the two homes in a circular “O” shape) 6. Calls to decentralize Japan have been heard for years, but the pandemic may signal a turning point in the discussion7.

While urban Japan experienced the most intense forms of lockdown, rural areas seem to have managed without too many interruptions. For a country that imports 60% of its food calories, domestic food production during a pandemic is critical. Due to school closures, some food producers who supply school lunch programs were forced to dump unused food8. On the aggregate however, farmers fared well during the crisis, and despite the occasional run on toilet paper, grocery store shelves were full.

Delivering vegetables in Japan during COVID-19

As part of the FEAST Project7, based at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, an online survey of farming households (April 24 to May 30, n=107) from around the country revealed little change in day-to-day operations. The survey primarily targeted small-scale, alternative farmers associated with popular online networks and focused on how the pandemic impacted farm management and life at home and in the community. Sales and distribution channels went virtually unchanged during the course of the national emergency for all types and sizes of farms. Concern over health, schooling, and access to hospitals due to COVID-19 for all farms surveyed far out-weighed agricultural concerns. Typical rural villages have highly aged populations and limited medical facilities, making them potential clusters for virus outbreak.

We were curious to see how small-scale farmers practicing organic agriculture and running box-scheme memberships were impacted when compared to other types of farmers. When asked what they worried most about in relation to the outbreak, organic farmers (both certified and non-certified) were significantly less worried about produce sales, on-farm management issues, and impacts to daily life and health than conventional farmers. These results would suggest that organic farmers were more autonomous in their sourcing of farming materials (seeds, mulches, etc.) and were assured sales outlets due to their customer memberships, while conventional farmers were tied to the whims of uncertain markets. In addition, compared to last year at the same time, non-certified organic farmers also saw a slight increase in total sales, while other types of farms saw slight declines. In a survey of agricultural corporations (nougyou houjin) run in Saga prefecture, sales decreased for over 60% of corporations and 14% surveyed saw declines of over 20% or more8, suggesting that more research is needed that focuses on different types of farming operations.

The survey is part of a multi-country comparative effort to gauge how farmers have fared during the COVID-19 pandemic and what insights we can gain on how different types of farms and management styles show resiliency during crises such as these. Surveys have now been completed in Japan and Taiwan, both of which have shown relative success against the outbreak, and also Italy which was greatly affected. With future crises looming on the horizon, a more decentralized, autonomous, and agrarian countryside may be critical to the long-term sustainability of our food systems and human health.

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