Sustainable urban agricolture in Japan

Written by Roberta Fasanelli

Despite being a highly industrialized country, the presence of agricultural land use is a common feature on the urban landscape of cities across Japan. 
Almost one-third of all agricultural output in the country is, in fact, generated by urban agriculture; likewise, urban farmers account for 25% of farming households in Japan.
Japanese urban agriculture has the unique characteristic that it happens in (and around) huge, industrialized cities.
The MAFF identifies the following points of strength of urban agriculture:
1. Source of fresh and safe products, including organic and low-chemical crops.  These can be locally produced and consumed based on relationships of trust between farmers and city dwellers.
2. Opportunity for urban residents’ engagement in agricultural activities, both directly and through exchange between producers and consumers.
3. Open space for disaster management, including fire spread prevention, evacuation space for earthquakes, really frequent in Japan.
4. Resource for recreation and well-being, including green space for personal leisure and spiritual comfort.
5. Education and awareness-raising for improving urban residents’ understanding of agriculture and food issues.
6. Contribution to sustainability and well-being in cities, by increasing the area of permeable surface for storm water management and reducing the heat-island effect and potentially energy needs by cooling the air.
7. Biodiversity and ecosystem services by providing habitats and managing species 
8. Reduction of food miles, the distance that food must be transported, and even provide bio-energy resources.

Furthermore, according to 2010 data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), urban fields are the most productive kind of agriculture in terms of economic value of production per area (3% more productive than the national average).
And so, in terms of revenue per farmer, urban agriculture is two times more profitable than inter-mountainous agriculture and around 10% more so than agriculture in rural plain areas. 
Even in Tokyo, one of the largest and most congested cities in the world, among the intricate networks of railways, roads, buildings and power wires, local agriculture produces enough vegetables to potentially feed almost 700,000 city dwellers.
Yet, despite all its actual and potential benefits, agriculture in Japanese cities is under threat. In just the past decade, agricultural land use has diminished by over 40% because of urbanization-related impacts (even though the population of the country has remained stable) and the number of people practicing agriculture in urban areas also has decreased dramatically. 
In Tokyo, for instance, the number of families involved in agricultural activities has decreased by more than 60% since 1975 (in 41 years).

The External Threats of the Urban Rice Agriculture
The main reasons for decreasing percentage of people involved in agricultural activities and for the reduction of land dedicated to rice cultivation derive from the national demographic conditions. 
We can remember these:
1. Regulation of the system.  In Japan, urban agriculture falls under the MAFF, which is in charge of policies concerning agriculture, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism (MLITT), which deals with urban planning.  Since the two ministries use different zoning classification systems to distinguish between areas in which urbanization is a priority and areas in which farming is, there are conflicting definitions of what in fact constitutes urban agriculture.
2. Aging of farmers.  The average age of most people practicing agriculture in Japanese cities is rapidly rising. Consequently, great uncertainty exists about the production methods employed, about kind of land used in agricultural fields and their extent.
3. Tax barriers. Maintaining productive farmland in the urban areas of Japan poses an economic burden for landowners, who face significantly high taxes.  High urban real estate prices and tough compliance requirements of some tax exemption programs drive farmers away from production or into transforming land for development.
4. Commercialization. Bringing consumption of local, eco-friendly products from its current niche market into a mainstream one remains a challenge.
5. Productivity shift. Proximity to densely inhabited areas makes urban farmers especially prone to reducing chemical use.  
The External Opportunities in the Market
Despite the hurdles, opportunities do exist for strengthening the roles of Japanese urban agriculture for sustainability and local well-being, including governance, economic, environmental and social aspects.
New conceptual approaches Recently, the idea of cities managing their local ecosystems for agricultural production has been gaining momentum.   By designing compact cities with surrounding areas that can be used for agriculture, the need for industrialized production, extensive packaging and lengthy distribution can be significantly reduced.   Especially relevant for Japan are the concepts of satoyama (and satoumi), which refer to “dynamic mosaics of managed socio-ecological systems that produce a bundle of ecosystem services for human well-being”.  
Increased interest of urban residents in agriculture In recent years, interest in agriculture has grown significantly among Japanese urban dwellers; according to a recent study by MAFF, over 85% of Tokyo residents would like their city to have farmland in order to secure access to fresh foods and green space.  The systems “Taiken Nouen”, by which people participate in different activities with actual farmers, and “Shimin Nouen”, or allotment gardens, are the two most popular systems of citizens’ involvement in urban agriculture in Japan. 
Green economy: urban agriculture for sustainable consumption–production networks  In an urbanizing world, cities are fundamental for achieving a green economy, a concept now at the forefront of the international sustainable development agenda.  Because of its proximity to consumers, urban agriculture can more easily target urban demand, as opposed to rural production which is more exposed to the influences of agricultural commodities’ markets. 
Innovative finance mechanisms: payment for urban ecosystem services and biodiversity  Economic compensation for the provisioning of environmental goods and services not captured by the market is an innovative mechanism for enabling a green economy.  Such payment schemes are created in order to strengthen the roles of urban farming as provider of local biodiversity and ecosystem services, incentivizing a shift towards clean, biodiversity-friendly production practices. 
Urban regeneration and political momentum for urban agriculture  Many Japanese cities, rapidly developed in the post-war period under weak zoning mechanisms, present a scattered mosaic of green patches among buildings and concrete infrastructure.  Cities across the country are developing urban regeneration policies aimed at restoring the urban landscape for improved local environment and well-being.  Within this context, urban agriculture provides a much needed source of greenery, especially in highly industrialized, urbanized areas of big cities and city centres. 
Green innovation  In a technology-savvy country like Japan, urban agriculture offers a fertile ground for green innovation.  From rooftop gardens for urban residents to engage in agriculture, to green curtains using edible species for insulation of public buildings, to computer-based indoor plant growing, new forms of urban farming are emerging.  
Let’s take an overview on 10 great ides from Tokyo concerning green innovation.

Ten (GREAT) innovative projects of Urban Agriculture in Tokyo
A city known for Edo culture and cherry blossoms, Tokyo has long integrated natural beauty within a sprawling metropolis.                         
Now the world’s biggest city supports more than 13.2 million people and imports 80% of its food, making the need for innovative and productive use of urban spaces more pressing than ever. 
Here’s how Tokyo’s most notable urban agriculture projects are combining Japanese cultural tradition, innovative technologies, and architectural design to create Edokko urban foodscapes.
1. Agrimedia Corporation The Agrimedia Corporation operates 20 plot-share farms in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba, connecting beginning farmers with elderly former farmers who were forced to abandon their land. Groups of farmers share plots of 10 square meters for a US$75 rental fee, and receive resources such as seeds, tools, inputs, and technical advice.
2. City Farm Odaiba Atop a roof on the man-made island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay, City Farm grows melons, tomatoes, soybeans, and rice using traditional semi-aquatic conditions. Community members can participate in threshing events, cooking projects, and sake making courses.
3. Ginza Honeybee Project Hoping to raise awareness about honeybees and educate community members about sustainable lifestyles, Takayasu Kazuo and Tanaka Atsuo founded a rooftop bee yard in the Ginza district of Chūō, Tokyo in March of 2006. Ginza’s beekeepers are able to harvest about 300 kilograms of honey per year; the bee farm is home to more than 150,000 bees, which may even protect endangered bird populations from crow attacks.
4. Ginza Rice Farm and Omotesando Rooftop Farm Situated on an empty lot in the Ginza shopping district, Ginza Rice Farm is run by Iimura Kazuki, supporting ducklings, bamboo cultivation, and other vegetable plants. Inspired by the success of Ginza Rice Farm, which has held a farmers’ market, noodle rolling events on bamboo poles, and a community rice harvest. Kazuki later founded Omotesando Rooftop Farm, renting empty plots to interested community members.
5. NTT East Group Green Potato Project Telecommunications corporation NTT launched this project as part of a larger green roof, choosing to grow sweet potatoes using aerohydroponics. Sweet potatoes have wide leaves, which can provide a cooling effect through higher transpiration rates, combating the urban heat island effect in Tokyo.
6. Pasona O2 The Pasona O2 interior urban farm is the most famous of Tokyo’s urban agriculture projects, incorporating climate control, sodium vapor lamps, and remote technology to maximize yields of more than 100 types of produce, all grown indoors.  Created by Kono Designs in 2010, the project is especially notable for its use of underground spaces, the role of office staff in caring for the plants, and the visual aesthetic created by the vertical crops growing on the exterior of the nine-story building.
7. Roppongi Noeuen Described as a country oasis in the middle of the city, this urban farm and restaurant features Japanese specialty crops, such as negi leeks and mustard greens, growing in large glass cubes, created by a partnership with ON design. The menu features the plants grown on-site, and offers both American and Japanese cuisines.
8. Soradofarm New farms on rooftops of train stations feature small rental plots of local veggies, professional support staff, and zen-inspired design.  The farms were created through collaboration between the East Japan Railway Company and entertainment company Ekipara, and currently occupy five locations.
9. Tamachi Building Co. Rooftop Garden Since May 2009, Tamachi Building Co., a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has provided produce from its rooftop garden to New Tokyo restaurants.  The company has invited schoolchildren to strawberry picking events and potato digs, and has incorporated solar power for energy efficiency.
10. Tokyo Local Fruit Between Tokyo’s obsession with luxury fruit and its renewed love of DIY gardening lies an interesting phenomenon of noncommercial fruit production in urban spaces.  A research collaboration seeks to understand how fruit in Tokyo is grown and harvested on the community level through storytelling; many of the collected stories and fruits are unique to Japan, or even to Tokyo

In Japan, urban farming is both a significant component of the national agricultural sector and an essential ingredient of city space. 
By creating an integrative policy environment that enables cities to maximize multiple ecological and socio-economic benefits, urban agriculture will make a significant contribution to sustainability and to the well-being of city dwellers from enhancing local ecosystem services and biodiversity, to reducing urban footprints.