What comes to mind when you think of Tokyo?
For most, it’s a bustling metropolis with high-rise offices, packed trains, and strident footsteps. But once you get away from central business areas, you’ll be met with densely packed but mostly peaceful suburbs where backyards are the size of a parking stall or two.
With land at a high premium, pockets of greenery are highly valued.
In the suburb of Nishitokyo City, officials point to a 2017 citizens’ survey in which the presence of green spaces was identified as one of the top perceived benefits — despite the city having one of the lowest per-capita parklands in the region. Small farms contribute greatly to that perception, officials note.
Urban farms: Greenery that should be protected
A 2019 Nishitokyo City planning council report states that urban farmland, once viewed as “development opportunities,” is now seen as “greenery that should be protected.” The city also recognizes urban farms’ value in education and disaster response. Evolving policies and tax incentives are in place to protect them.
But a community’s desire to preserve farmland rarely aligns with economic reality. In 1993, urban farms occupied 15% of the city; by 2011, the rate had dropped below 10%.
The community must be willing to bear the cost and actively engage in urban farmland preservation to stem the green drain, says Akito Murayama, Ph.D., a University of Tokyo associate professor in urban engineering, in an article in the business journal Nikkei BP. The role of urban farmland must be clearly defined, with the community actively engaged in maintenance and management, he says.
Farmers adapt but to what extent?
In Nishitokyo City and its vicinity, small urban farms and farm stands dot the landscape. The farm stands are popular, often selling out by early afternoons. Nearby residents walk or bicycle to purchase just-picked produce, usually cheaper than at supermarkets.
Yusuke Shimoda, 67, and his family run one such farm and farm stand. The family puts out a roadside flag when the stand is open, drawing customers like moths to a flame.
Shimoda’s land was passed down through generations. His was just one of many farms back in the day. “There was nothing around here,” he said, as he scanned the homes butting up against his land.
Shimoda currently farms about 60 varieties of crops including a new variety of cabbage, carrots, taro, onions, daikon, and blueberries, selling exclusively at their farm stand. He enjoys the challenge of growing new crops and the satisfaction of providing nutritious foods to the neighborhood. It’s not unusual to see customers spending more time chatting with him or his wife than selecting their purchases.
Pressures of a 9-to-5 economy
Over the decades, area farms have given way to more and more housing. The area is dense with single-family homes and small apartment complexes. Within the past 15 years, a monster condominium complex was built. Most working adults spend an average of an hour and a half commuting, by bus and/or train, to downtown Tokyo.
Shimoda’s family has sold about 10 percent of the land too. He continues to farm the remaining 0.8-acre farm with much love.
When he was growing up, Shimoda says the area was wide open space, with few homes and lots of farmland. With Tokyo’s economic growth came a growing commuter population in need of housing. Many neighboring farming families have given up on farming entirely, he said.
Shimoda grew up helping his family on the farm but took a 9-to-5 job in banking for a steady income and lifestyle. In retirement, he’s taken on farming full-time.
The Shimodas try to balance the farm’s needs with being a good neighbor. Longtime residents are more understanding, Shimoda said, but some newcomers aren’t used to farms and have complained about odor and machinery noise. Although the family strives to be considerate, they were taken by surprise when a neighbor called the police with a disturbance complaint. The family is careful not to run machinery in the early hours and sprays disinfectants gingerly so it won’t waft over to surrounding homes.
Will farms continue?
After becoming a full-time farmer, Shimoda applied for and was accepted into Nishitokyo’s Authorized Famer System. The farmer-led program is meant to promote efficient and stable urban farm management, with member farmers spearheading 5-year plans and the government providing financial and administrative support. There are currently about 50 farmers in the city’s program playing an active role in urban farm planning.
Besides financial and administrative support, Nishitokyo has put forth educational and promotional efforts. Recent-year efforts include
- A consumer-friendly website highlighting Nishitokyo agriculture. The website provides information on area family farms, certified restaurants that use locally produced products, and special sales events featuring locally produced agricultural products.
- A contest for elementary and middle schoolers to come up with menus using locally produced foods, with the winning menus being featured at local restaurants.
- An “Agri-Town” mascot spreading the word via event appearances, social media posts, and other publicity.
- Creating a special character to promote the city’s agricultural products. The character was created via a design contest open to the public.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Agricultural Promotion Plan notes the rising average age of farmers in Tokyo (63.9 in 2015) and the loss of agricultural land. The report also notes that there is increasing consumer awareness of the benefits of locally produced foods, efforts to include local agricultural products in school lunches, and innovative farm practices including expanding to new varieties, new technologies, and new markets.
Shimoda does not believe that his family’s next generation, already working 9-to-5 jobs, is willing to take on agriculture. But in the meantime, he works the land he is connected to and serves his lifelong hometown, changing as it may. As ongoing construction turns farmland into housing just down the road, the unseasonably warm sun beats down rows and rows of cabbage, daikon, and carrots, gleaming in many shades of green.
Editor’s note: Why are you reading about suburban Tokyo on the Petaluma Bounty blog? Petaluma Bounty staff Masako visited her hometown this fall and put together this report with the encouragement of Bounty Director Suzi.