YABU, Japan — When tending to her rice paddies in this remote, mountainous part of Japan became too arduous, Sakae Tanigaki brought in some young guys to help out.
Now, a bunch of 70-somethings do most of the work on the terraced hillside. That means the 85-year-old Tanigaki can stick to the flat fields.
“My ancestors developed this land long ago. So as long as I’m able, I feel that I need to work this land and keep it in good shape,” Tanigaki, in a purple flowery smock, said as she sat on a rock in the sun outside her house, about 400 miles west of Tokyo.
After her husband died two decades ago, Tanigaki tended the fields by herself. But now men from the local “silver center” — a kind of temp agency for retirees — are helping out, and she’s been able to cut back her hours to 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or so every day.
Tanigaki doesn’t have much choice but to work — there’s no one else around here to do it.
“There are no jobs for young people in Yabu, so they all leave,” said Tanigaki, a great-grandmother whose offspring have little interest in living this kind of labor-intensive life in the countryside.
But now the local government, with support from Tokyo, is launching an experimental reform project aimed at reviving Yabu’s struggling farming base. The authorities hope to make working here more attractive for people and companies, and to loosen the enormously powerful agricultural lobby’s hold on the sector.
Yabu is a patchwork of small fields, wedged between train tracks and houses, that are cobbled together into farms. Many of the houses, some with traditional tiled roofs, have seen better days.
The town suffers from the same demographic scourges as other farming areas of Japan. Its population has been dropping, almost halving in the past 50 years. Meanwhile, the average age is rising: The typical farmer is 70.7 years old.
Even as they are faced with literally dying out, farmers across Japan are resisting changes to their way of life. Their lobby group, the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives Group — also known as the JA — is also fiercely opposing the changes that would be required if Japan were to sign up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
For now, negotiations between Japan and the United States, the two biggest players in the proposed 12-nation free-trade bloc, are going nowhere, partly because of Japan’s unwillingness to budge on agriculture.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has promised to protect “sacred cows” — including rice, beef and dairy — from the deal. Rice carries an almost spiritual significance here, not to mention a 778 percent tariff.
But in Yabu, local politicians and farmers aren’t waiting for the trigger of the TPP to make big changes. Japan’s government has designated the area a test bed for much-needed reform in the highly regulated sector.
“Agriculture is the foundation of Yabu, but it’s now at crisis point,” said Sakae Hirose, the mayor of Yabu and the architect of the reforms. “So what I’m trying to do is to revitalize the foundation of this area.”
Most of the farmers around here are part-timers who tend small plots around their day jobs, or people such as Tanigaki, who have farming in their blood. But 12 percent of the farmland around Yabu has been abandoned as residents become too old to tend to it. If someone stops farming a plot of land, the whole system of irrigation is affected, making it harder for neighbors to keep growing.
Bringing in new blood is the key. “We need to create an environment where it’s easier to farm,” Hirose said. “We need to attract new farmers and allow private companies to come in, so we can diversify the people who are farming.”
The plans include giving local authorities the power to take control of abandoned land and consolidate it, and allowing private companies and new farmers to use it.
But perhaps the most important change is to the way that farmland sales are handled. Currently, selling land is a drawn-out, bureaucratic process, often subject to local biases. In Yabu, municipal workers have taken control of the process from the vested interests on the local agriculture committee.
The Yabu committee, which represents farmers, was staunchly opposed to Hirose’s plans in the beginning but slowly came around, realizing they were in a reform-or-die situation.
“If we don’t do anything, then of course the rate of deterioration will increase,” said Tadao Otani, the 69-year-old head of the committee. “We don’t have any time to spare. We don’t know if Yabu will exist in 20 or 30 or 40 years.”
But convincing the JA, with almost 10 million members, to support nationwide reforms will be a much tougher challenge.
The prime minister has singled out agriculture as a key area for overhaul as part of his “Abenomics” plan to drag Japan out of years of stagnation. He has vowed to reform the JA, a cooperative that collects and sells its members’ produce but also runs a huge bank and an insurance company, and manages grocery stores and hospitals, as well as wedding and funeral halls.
The JA is hitting back. It has mobilized thousands of staff and held numerous “opposition meetings” to resist joining TPP.
The JA declined to comment for this report but has publicly said that the government’s reforms would “destroy our organization.”
Aurelia George Mulgan, an expert in Japanese agriculture at the Australian National University, said projects such as the Yabu experiment were “pure political tokenism” on Abe’s part. Japan’s agricultural sector still has potential for growth, she wrote in a recent article, but “unless its myriad problems are seriously tackled,” growth will not occur.
Robert Feldman, an economist at JPMorgan in Tokyo, was more optimistic.
“If Yabu is even partially successful, there will be a lot of communities that will try to do either the same or better,” he said. “Abe is in a good position. He faces no political opposition, and the JA has nowhere else to go.”
On a recent fall day, Toshiaki Uegaki was tending one of his small fields, cut through with neat rows of cabbage, lettuce, onions, radishes and turnips. Nearby, an elderly woman so hunched her body formed a 90-degree angle walked slowly up a hill, while a man wheeling a small cart for his oxygen tank stopped to rest on a doorstep.
While he would like to consolidate his land, Uegaki, 69, has his reservations about the plans.
“If the people who come into this area are really serious about farming, then that’s fine,” he said, leaning on a hoe on the edge of his field. “But if farming companies are coming here just to make a profit, they won’t be interested in trying to make our area better.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.