TOKYO – The pro-business government of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is stepping up its attack on agricultural cooperatives, facing mounting criticism from both home and abroad. The International Co-operative Alliance (Asia and Pacific) in early November adopted a resolution criticizing Abe’s moves as “undue interference on the autonomy and independence of farmers’ cooperatives.”
The Abe government on Nov. 29 decided on a proposal to force agricultural cooperatives, which are essentially farmers’ mutual-aid organizations, to give higher priority to making profits. The government claims that this plan will boost farmers’ income.
Abe blames cooperatives for causing a shrinking of the gross agricultural product and decreasing farmers’ income. The farming population has shrunk to 1.92 million from its 1970s level of 7 million. “The government promised an agricultural policy reform but what it proposed was an agricultural cooperative reform,” says Okuno Choe, the president of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives.
Abe and the ruling party are seeking to make Japan the most business-friendly country in the world and are trying to remove regulations that are regarded as obstacles to achieve this goal. Abe believes that the presence of agricultural cooperatives is the biggest barrier hampering private companies from entering agriculture-related markets. This is why the government is trying to weaken farmers’ organizations which are deeply rooted in rural communities.
The Abe government has been a major promoter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multinational trade agreement which would end tariff protections for more than 8,500 Japanese-produced items – most of them farm products. The future of the trade deal has been put into question with Trump’s election as U.S. president.
In 2015, the Japanese government enacted a bill to amend Japan’s Agricultural Cooperative Law aimed at getting the cooperatives, which currently function as mutual-help organizations for small independent farmers, to behave more like commercial companies. In addition, a 2015 revision to the Agricultural Land Law paved the way for private corporations to own large tracts of farmland.
The latest proposal is aimed at undermining agricultural cooperatives so that private companies will be able to expand their businesses in rural areas.