Would that my daughter were married to a middle farmer

With five acres of farm land

And a fourth of an acre in wood;

No borrowing, no lending,

Both ends meeting;

Visiting the temple by turns --

Someone must stay at home --

Going to heaven sooner or later.

What a happy life!

What a happy life!

SO sings the farmer in an old Japanese folksong. Give him five acres of arable and a quarter of an acre of woodland, and the good life, both in this and in the next world, is his! To the westerner, this ideal is modest enough, but though modest it is within the reach of few Japanese, for the country is small and its people are many. There are all too few bridegrooms in Japan with five and one-quarter acres of land -- not in a country where large numbers of farmers own no land at all, and where the average holding is only 2.5 acres.

It takes but a glance at the Japanese countryside and the extraordinary extent to which the farmers of Japan have pushed their neat patterns of cultivation against the rugged natural terrain to understand the hunger of the Japanese peasantry for land. Americans, conditioned to a bountiful endowment, can hardly appreciate the intensity of this appetite of 35,000,000 agrarian Japanese crowded upon a total of 15,000,000 acres of cultivated land, an acreage about equal to the farmland of the state of Washington.

Nature in Japan is stingy enough to the farmers who own their holdings. But these operate only half the farmlands of Japan. The remainder is cultivated by tenants and part-tenants who constitute about 70 percent of the 5,700,000 Japanese farm families. Traditionally, they have been compelled to deliver half or more of the yields from their rented plots to a landlord.

The typical tenant farms so little land that these yields which he must share are meager indeed. Fifty percent of the tenants rent less than 1.2 acres each, or an average of half an acre, and another 27 percent rent an average of 1.7 acres each. This in itself would explain the poverty of the Japanese tenants. But the situation is made worse by the conditions of tenancy.

Land hunger and the intensity of competition for land ownership and cultivation rights have preserved land values and rental rates far above a level justified by the productivity of the soil. Landlords have taken full advantage of these conditions. Rentals of 50 percent of the rice crop and only slightly less of other crops have been customary. In addition, the tenant meets a number of other assessments and dues, buys his own expensive fertilizer, and provides the farmhouse, farm buildings, implements and seed. The share from which he draws his sustenance frequently represents not more than 30 percent of the crop. Add to this the fact that more often than not a landlord may terminate the lease at will, and it is clear why the life of a Japanese tenant, until the more prosperous war and postwar years, conformed to the feudal adage that "farmers should neither live nor die."

The Japanese tenants have never accepted their burdens as a matter of course and at times their reaction was one of violence. The seething discontent in rural Japan before Pearl Harbor was not lost on Japan's politicians. But remedial measures were vitiated by a refusal to strike at the roots of the landlord-tenant relationships. To convert tenants into independent farmers and institute security of tenure and reasonable rents called for great concessions by the landlords or large expenditures by the Government, or both. Neither was willing to undertake such a task.

Japanese landlords differ from similar groups in the west. Their estates are much smaller and their number is much larger. There are, of course, great landlords in Japan. Three percent of the farm owners possess 30 percent of the cultivated land and nearly one-half of the tenanted land. Among them one finds 3,000 landlords who own 122 acres or more, and 25 who average 4,500 acres each. But there are several hundred thousand small landlords. The scale of operations of an average Japanese farmer is so small and the demand for land is so great that one need not own a thousand or a hundred or even ten acres to become a rent collector. An acre might serve the purpose. Striking examples of landlordism on a molecular scale may be encountered in every section of Japan. Even the northern island of Hokkaido, where the holdings are much larger than in the rest of Japan, is no exception.

Little wonder, therefore, that Japanese landlords, big and small, absentee or resident, are numerous and wield enormous prestige and influence in every village. They have been welded together in support of the status quo by the long and stormy history of agrarian unrest. They dominate local politics, and their position in the village forms the basis of their power in the nation. It is from this class that the army and navy drew heavily for their officers, and it is upon the landlords that the reactionary parties of Japan always relied for support.

Their importance as a bulwark against Japan's social and political reorientation as prescribed in the Potsdam Declaration was lost neither on thoughtful Japanese nor on the American occupation authorities. It was, therefore, as much from a recognition of the close relationship between the anti-democratic tradition of Japan and the rural landlord system, as from an interest in the tenant farmers' welfare, that a redistribution of land ownership became occupation policy. General MacArthur, in his land-reform directive of December 15, 1945, ordered the Japanese Government "to take measures to insure that those who till the soil of Japan shall have a more equal opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor," not as an end in itself but in order to "remove economic obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies, establish respect for the dignity of man, and destroy the economic bondage which has enslaved the Japanese farmer to centuries of feudal oppression. "When in late December 1946, the farmers of 11,000 villages of Japan went to the polls to elect representatives to administer the land reform program, the first step was taken toward a fundamental change of rural Japan.


In compliance with the directive of General MacArthur, the Japanese Government, in active consultation with occupation authorities, drafted the Special Measure for the Establishment of Owner-Farmers (Land Reform Law) and Agricultural Land Adjustment Law of 1946. This body of legislation provides the legal basis for the land reform now under way.

The reform provides for the purchase by the Japanese Government of approximately 5,000,000 acres, or about 80 percent of the farmlands under tenant cultivation, for subsequent resale to the tenants. The change in title is to be effected in two years. All the land of owners residing apart from the community where their land is located is made subject to sale. Resident landlords may retain 2.5 acres of tenant-cultivated land, except in Hokkaido where, because of the larger farm pattern, landlords would be permitted ten acres of tenant-farmed land. Had the limit been higher, entire prefectures would have been but slightly affected because landlords' holdings are so small. The acreage that can be retained by a landlord is fixed on the basis of the household as a unit, to prevent an owner from escaping the limitation through distributing his holdings among his family.

The size of holdings of owner-cultivators is also subject to limitations in order to place the maximum amount of land in the hands of as many tenants as possible. Owner-cultivators are restricted to 7.5 acres in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, and to 30 acres in Hokkaido. However, they may be permitted to cultivate more than the specified acreage if the productivity of the land would be lowered by subdivision or if the holding is cultivated by family labor.

The administration of the land transfer and of the reform as a whole is in the hands of local, prefectural and national land commissions. The local land commissions are the pivotal agencies of the reform. They will designate the actual plots in each village which will be made available by the Government for tenant ownership. A local commission normally consists of five tenants, three non-cultivating landowners, and two owner farmers, all of whom are elected in each village by the categories of farmers or landowners whom they represent. These commissions have now been elected in every village and are at present designating the holdings which are being purchased by the Government for resale to the tenants.

Above the local commissions, there are 46 prefectural commissions, through which the over-all policies laid down by the Central Land Commission will be administered regionally. A prefectural commission is composed of ten tenants, six landlords, and four owner-cultivators, elected by the local commissions. The central commission is the policy-making body, composed of eight tenant representatives of nation-wide farm associations, and five experts, drawn primarily from the universities. The Minister of Agriculture and Forestry is the chairman of the commission.

A crucial element in the land purchase program is, of course, the price. Part of the reason why all Japanese tenancy measures were frustrated in the past was that the price of land was left to negotiation between landlord and tenant. The landlords were never compelled to sell land, and their strong bargaining position meant prohibitive prices. In the present program the price is officially fixed. The Government will purchase the land at an average price of 3,000 yen per acre for paddy (rice) land and 1,860 yen per acre of dry or upland fields. In addition, the owners will receive a government subsidy of 880 yen per acre for paddy fields and 520 yen per acre for uplands. This subsidy, however, will not be paid on more than 7.5 acres per individual seller in Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, and 30 acres in Hokkaido.[i] The Government will pay the landlords in 24-year annuity bonds bearing interest at the rate of 3.65 percent per year.

Tenants now cultivating the land acquired by the Government will have priority of purchase. They will buy it at the same average prices paid to the landlords by the Government, except that they will not share the cost of the subsidy with the Government. A tenant may discharge his obligation in one payment or in several, not exceeding 30 annual installments, at an annual interest rate of 3.2 percent. Many of the tenants have benefited from current high food prices and will be able to pay all or a substantial portion of the land-purchase price outright. The annual payments are not likely to be a heavy financial burden even for those tenants who have not accumulated cash holdings from the inflation. Provision is made, moreover, that in the event of a serious drop in food prices the Government may adjust the payments where necessary so they will never exceed an amount which, when added to taxes and other financial obligations of land ownership, is equal to one-third the cash value of the annual crop. Furthermore, when circumstances so warrant, the Government will reduce or exempt altogether the annual installments, or take other measures necessary to lighten the charges borne by the new owners. The Land Reform Law prohibits sales by the tenants of land acquired under the program except through the agency of the Japanese Government and on terms stipulated by the Government.

The program seeks to transform the cultivators of 80 percent of the tenanted farmland of Japan into independent proprietors. But even if it is completely successful, one-fifth of the present tenants will continue to rent their lands. Easing the burdens of tenancy is, therefore, an important aspect of the reform. The measure provides for a reduction in rents and for the elimination of rent payments in kind at a fixed proportion of the crop. Rents are now to be paid in cash at a stated amount, which may not exceed 25 percent of the value of the rice crop and 15 percent of the value of other crops. Cash payments are almost as significant in improving tenancy conditions as rent reduction. The practice of fixing rent payments in kind at a given share of the crop placed the marketing of roughly 85 percent of the commercially distributed rice in the hands of the landlords, since the tenant required most of his share for his own needs. Landlords, then, have been the real beneficiaries of the upward trend in rice prices since the turn of the century. Furthermore, rent in kind limited the ability of tenants to take advantage of seasonal price fluctuations in marketing their crops.

The measure also outlaws a long-standing grievance of the tenants -- the custom of renting by a verbal agreement, which landowners might terminate on short notice. A written contract specifying the rent, the period of tenure and other terms of the agreement, is to be registered in the village and to conform to a model contract prescribed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.


Such, in the main, are the principal provisions of the land reform. The most formidable part of the task is to put them into effect. It is understandable that the immediate prospect of so basic a change in a tradition-ridden agrarian society should stir up great passions. The threat to end the landlord's domination of the Japanese countryside has drawn forth the resistance of politicians and intellectuals as well as landlords. Traditionalists know that one of the bases of the tight political and industrial oligarchy was a poor and benighted peasantry rooted in a seemingly changeless agrarian society. And the landlords themselves, who are entirely alive to the issues at stake, frankly justify their rôle with the contention that paternalism is a cultural and economic necessity in rural Japan.

The rationale for the rural élite was eloquently presented by the Headman of the Homma clan, one of the largest landholding groups in Japan. The 16 families of the Homma clan own about 4,000 acres of choice rice fields in Yamagata Prefecture, accumulated over two-and-a-half centuries according to the pattern of purchase and foreclosure typical of most large Japanese estates. A large proportion of the 5,142 tenants who cultivate these holdings are descendants of small farmers who lost their lands to the Homma families as a result of famine, depression and the feudal and post-Meiji tax exactions and usury practices.

The Hommas branded the reform measure as "penalizing the thrifty, the efficient, and the mentally better endowed." Land ownership, they argued, would be a poor exchange for the economic security provided by the landlord who pays the taxes and presumably provides the tenants' needs in times of distress and crop failure. They foresaw a serious economic and cultural deterioration throughout rural Japan if the landlords were removed and the tenants became small farm owners, all equally poor and with no interest in the general welfare of the community. They conceded the necessity of a "proper" land reform. However, they would eliminate the two most crucial elements of the present measure: the officially established prices at which land is to be acquired, and the provision for compulsory sale. The cash rent provisions of the reform are bad enough in their eyes, but compulsory sale of land at official prices partakes of the nature of the devil.

The arguments of the Hommas are typical of the vast majority of the landlords. It was clear from the feeling with which they presented their case that they will not accept their demise with passive acquiescence. The close identification of the Homma families with the land has persisted for 28 generations, creating a sense of fixed roots. To divorce them from the land, as the reform measure proposes, is to undermine their raison d'être. As the Headman picturesquely put it, without their lands the Hommas will be "the most lonesome men in the world."

The situation is not without its pathos. The fact is, however, that whatever the tenants may have derived from the paternalism of their more benevolent landlords was far outweighed by the economic, political and social evils of the system as a whole. If the landlords have been the intellectual and cultural leaders of the Japanese village, their use of this leadership in behalf of aggressive Japanese authoritarianism does not justify its perpetuation. Through this reform, SCAP seeks to eradicate a patriarchal system which has served to stifle liberalism and democracy, locally and nationally.

Criticism of the land reform on a more formal and sophisticated level has come from Japanese intellectual circles. It is significant that the opponents are not at all inhibited by the knowledge that SCAP inspired and took an active part in the formulation of some of the crucial features of the reform, publicly gave its approval to the enacted legislation, and is exercising all the means at its command to ensure the successful application of the program. Nor is it without passing interest to note that the Japanese tenants have few spokesmen among the intelligentsia. Very few Japanese intellectuals are truly concerned with the lot of so large a group of underprivileged, and at this crucial moment in the life of the Japanese tenantry such of them as might have been expected to supply leadership to the peasants lend their support to the landlords. This is in strong contrast to the history of agrarian movements throughout most of Europe, which never have lacked articulate, intellectual leadership.

It is argued that an attempt to transfer land ownership and fix farm rents on terms which disregard prevailing market levels is certain to fail. The prescribed land prices, it is pointed out, are only a tenth or less of the levels in the black market. It is concluded that clandestine agreements between landlord and tenant will result in purchase of much of the land at prices which the new owner will be unable permanently to finance, and also that a large part of the land acquired by tenants will be resold sub rosa, at a tremendous profit. The opponents of the reform further maintain that competition will vitiate the rent ceiling provisions. In this vein, Dr. Shiroshi Nasu, an outstanding Japanese agricultural economist, has written, "The high rent (and high land price) is an outcome of economic forces, and is not an expression of any political privilege. It would be wrong if we did not recognize this fact and considered high farm rent as simply a vestige of feudalism. A democratic society will hardly come about if we disregard economic principles. On the contrary, it might result in bringing about an undemocratic or autocratic society."

These problems were, of course, considered by Japanese officials and occupation authorities, but the enforcement difficulties inherent in fixing land prices and rent below market levels were accepted as preferable to saddling the new owners with such a financial burden as prices satisfactory to the landlords would place upon them. Nor would the current chaos in Japanese finance warrant a more generous subsidy to the landlords by the Government. It is doubtful, in fact, that the landlords would willingly sell at almost any price expressed in the depreciated yen now circulating in Japan. As one of the Homma family leaders put it, "We are in the business of buying land, not selling it."

This discrepancy between fixed and market prices need not endanger the success of the land reform. It is at this point that the rôle of the Government, as the sole agency for the purchase and sale of land, becomes crucial. With no legal alternative to compulsory sale to the Government, the landlords will be confronted with a fail accompli which leaves them no opportunity to withhold lands for better terms or to exact prices above the established levels.

In effect, rent reduction, even below the level fixed by the reform, is already an accomplished fact. It has come about as a result of war and postwar measures by the Government to maintain control over the distribution of foodstuffs. Official food regulations require cultivators to deliver assigned quotas of staples to official agencies, part of the quotas delivered by tenants representing the rental share due the landlord. The collection agency then pays the landlord and tenant for their respective shares in cash. To induce tenants to deliver their full quota, they are paid at a far higher rate than landlords. Actually, the difference is so great that the landlords' receipts represent less than the rental ceiling of 25 percent of the cash value of the crop prescribed by the reform. While the maintenance of low cash rents by this method is contingent on the continuation of food controls, nevertheless this experience indicates that rent ceilings in disregard of "economic law" are not an impossibility.

Another prevalent line of criticism is that the law overlooks the basic evil of Japanese agriculture -- the molecular scale of farm operation. The reform, it is charged, aims at the perpetuation rather than the elimination of small-scale farming and the backward techniques that accompany it. According to one writer, "Japanese agriculture will make no progress so long as it is not mechanized, but mechanization is hampered by farming on a small scale. The creation of landed farmers cannot by itself promote progress in agricultural techniques. . . . Essential democratization of Japanese agriculture cannot be expected from the creation of small holders, which presupposes the maintenance of the status quo. Mechanization of agriculture, and the Kolhoz (collective farm) system, which makes mechanization possible, will lead to democratization of the village. If we abandon this program, farming villages will be left as a permanent nucleus of reaction and tragedy."

There can be no doubt that the fundamental problem of agrarian Japan is the excessive subdivision of the land to the point where the vast majority of farms are too small to furnish their operators with an adequate livelihood. This was emphasized by General MacArthur in his original land-reform directive and by almost every Japanese and foreign observer. The minute scale of farming and the labor-consuming techniques it perpetuates have often and correctly been characterized as a problem of "too many people on too little land." But mechanized collectives will not solve it. Such farming will reduce rather than increase production per acre. The techniques of Japanese husbandry are deficient only in terms of the poor return for the labor expended. From the standpoint of productivity of the land their methods furnish an enormous return: yields per acre in Japan are among the highest in the world. The Japanese farmer grows twice as much rice per acre as do farmers in any of the other rice-growing countries of Asia; his rice yields are 50 percent above those in the United States, while his wheat and barley yields are twice as high.

Japan maintains this productivity from its land through the most careful, painstaking and burdensome hand cultivation of every square inch. Mechanization, while releasing the farmer from this drudgery, would unfortunately also sacrifice these high yields. In addition, it would create a large surplus rural population with no alternative occupation. This situation would hold true whether larger scale mechanized operations were applied in Japan on an individualistic or a collectivistic basis. In none of the arguments of those who propose mechanized collective farming is there any recognition of this dilemma. The problem can be solved only if Japan is released from dependence on her own foodstuffs to an extent sufficient to allow for the reduced yields which mechanization and other labor-saving techniques would entail, and if alternative employment is provided for the farmers.


The real strength of the landlords and their supporters in obstructing the land reform stems not from the cogency of their arguments but from the strategic place of authority which they hold in the Government and the countryside. The patriarchal rôle of the village landlords is most formidable. While they are in a numerical minority on the rural land commissions which will determine the success or failure of the program, their prestige gives them great influence in these bodies. The landlords are assisted in their opposition and obstruction by the widespread ignorance of the tenants about the reform. The tenants are by no means indifferent to the subject, but, as one Japanese writer has summarized the situation, "They are accustomed by long practice to take little interest in the law itself. Therein lies the need of leadership. But much cannot be expected in this regard, for the majority of the leaders in farming villages are landowners to whom the farm land reform is unwelcome." As it happens, moreover, perhaps the strongest ally of the landlords is the prosperity which severe food shortages and the enormous inflation of food prices have brought to the farmers. The memory of past grievances has been dimmed by their relative and momentary wellbeing. This general atmosphere in which land reform is proceeding was recently described by SCAP officials as one of "landlord hostility, attempts at corruption, sabotage, intimidation of tenants and public officials, and tenant apathy and ignorance."

In spite of all these obstacles recent official figures about the progress of the plan are encouraging. In March and July 1947, the first two periods in which land purchases were made, the Government bought from the landlords more than 900,000 acres or almost one-fifth of the total which the plan envisages. This is many times the acreage involved in all the tenant-purchase schemes launched by the Japanese in the two decades preceding Pearl Harbor. But though acquisition of land by the Government is proceeding according to schedule, only a small portion (60,000 acres) of the Government purchases has been released to tenants. The reason for the delay is the policy of consolidating the widely-scattered strips of land which typically make up an individual holding, in order that the land may be turned over to its new owners in single plots. Consolidation of the scattered fields of individual farmers would be a tremendous boon to Japanese agriculture, and the land reform offers an opportunity for its widespread accomplishment. Yet the process is complex and might easily provide a fertile field for landlord obstructionism.

It is almost certain that the landlords' hopes have been raised and their delaying tactics encouraged by recent indications of an early peace treaty and a substantial withdrawal of occupation personnel. Once there is only nominal Allied authority in Japan there is no assurance that much of the land held by the Government will not find its way back into the hands of its former owners. Therefore, the real measure of the progress of land reform will be the amount of land which is actually purchased by tenants and registered under new titles. It may take longer than two years to carry out the reform and its goals may never be completely achieved. Yet it now seems certain that a vast number of the tenant farmers, probably the great majority, will become the owners of the land they cultivate, and will retain for their own use or sale a large proportion of the crop which was previously taken by the landlord. Those changes presage a new leadership for the Japanese village. And those who remain tenants will be protected by law against the oppressive exactions and insecurity of cultivation rights which has characterized traditional landlordism. Such accomplishments will mark a revolution in the social and economic pattern of Japanese agriculture and will sever the tie that has bound the Japanese peasantry to the forces of reaction and militant nationalism.

Even the most thorough agrarian transformation will not solve all the problems of rural Japan. There is simply not enough arable land in Japan to give the enormous farm population reasonable assurances of a decent standard of living. If all the cultivated land of Japan were to be equally distributed, the average holding would amount to only 2.5 acres, or nearly two acres short of the amount estimated as necessary to make farming in Japan profitable. With the rural areas contributing the larger part to the annual increase of the Japanese population, at present about 1,000,000, congestion in agriculture will be aggravated in the future.

Under the circumstances, amelioration of the lot of the farm population, rather than ultimate solutions, is all that can be hoped for. Elimination of the landlord system is being supplemented by measures putting the agricultural coöperative associations which exist in every Japanese village on a democratic farmer-controlled basis. And the taxation system is being studied in order to eliminate inequalities in the tax burden between the farm and urban sectors of the population. Lasting answers to the problem can come only through expanded industrialization and commerce which decrease Japan's dependence on homegrown food and absorb the surplus rural population -- and eventually from a falling birthrate.

But to note the great problems that Japan must solve before the farmers achieve real economic and social independence is not to minimize the effect of the present agrarian program. It is one point of attack for the assault on the strongholds of Japanese feudalism. The emergence of a healthier rural society in Japan has promise for all of the Far East. Though the details of Asia's tenancy patterns differ from country to country, in essence the problem is the same. Throughout the east, the institutional exploitation of tenant by landlord makes sound economic and social conditions impossible. The land reform of Japan is the seed from which can sprout a new agrarian order in the Orient.

[i] These are the prices included by the Japanese in their initial land-referm proposals submitted to SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) in response to General Mac-Arthur's directive. The present exchange rate, fixed by SCAP, is 50 yen for $1.00.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • WILLIAM M. GILMARTIN, formerly economic consultant on the staff of SCAP, Tokyo; now economist with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; W. I. LADEJINSKY, with the Office of Foreign Agricultural Relations, U. S. Department of Agriculture; formerly scientific consultant on the staff of SCAP, Tokyo
  • More By William M. Gilmartin
  • More By Wolf Ladejinsky