The triple whammy of urbanization, a low birth rate, and an aging population has been emptying out Japan’s rural areas, including its farms. As the country’s farmers retire, few of the next generation are interested in tending the crops, preferring instead to head to cities for employment. The result: Japan’s uncultivated farmland has almost doubled over the past 20 years. The country is already reliant on food imports, with about 60 percent of its food coming from other nations. If the trend continues, this reliance could intensify.
The Japanese government in recent years has worked to encourage young people to farm, such as through 2009’s Rural Labor Squad, which put unemployed and underemployed youth to work on farms. However, one of the government’s latest projects signals a turn toward technology to solve the problem. The plan aims to increase farms’ use of automated machines and robots. The concept in part focuses on helping aging farmers as they become less physically able to shoulder the work themselves. It could also establish a new way of farming that decreases the need for human labor.
In the private sector, some agricultural firms are already heeding this call and starting to use robots. But staffing company Pasona is still focused on persuading humans to take on agricultural careers. Pasona’s CEO, Yasuyuki Nambu, had the company’s headquarters made into a functioning urban farm.
The nine-story building, located in teeming central Tokyo, has been outfitted with 43,000 square feet of space dedicated to growing more than 200 kinds of crops. Flowers and fruit trees grace the building’s outdoor balconies, a rice paddy and a broccoli field greet visitors in the main lobby, and tomato plants hang from the ceiling of a conference room. Pasona’s employees help harvest the crops, and the company canteen cooks them up for lunch.
“[Nambu] wanted to open the facility in the middle of Tokyo to create an interest in farming among city dwellers,” Yoshimi Kono, the architect who designed the building, tells CityLab. In addition to Pasona employees’ engagement with the crops, their families and visitors are invited to cultivate them. Kono says that three times a year groups such as elementary school classes are invited to plant the rice field. Pasona also offers courses on farming for employees and interested Tokyo residents.
But Pasona’s mission doesn’t end in Tokyo proper. Kono notes that the company has a small farm in western Japan, on which it offers a six-month course in the farming trades. So far, around 200 people have completed the program, with some deciding to stay in the area and become bona fide farmers.
While it’s perhaps unlikely that other Japanese companies will rent or buy land to encourage farming, Kono says there is significant interest in replicating Pasona’s urban farming facility. “Just last week, we had an inquiry from an office in central London,” he says. “We’ve also corresponded with companies in places like Dubai. We keep working on it.”