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Success on Japan's farms; Confucius and vinyl sheeting

To bicycle through the Japanese countryside is to glimpse what could be the 21st century for a good many villagers of the world. There's still plenty of old Japan around: the remains of Tokugawa Shogunate castles, ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, pink cherry blossoms against the deep evergreen of the pine woods that grace most of the hills, the dry stubble of rice fields, and a reassuring number of houses with curved-tiled roofs and the plain unpainted timbers of traditional architecture. Snowcapped Fuji, way off in the haze, makes it all look like a Japan Air Lines ad.

You pedal across a quaint, narrow footbridge and wobble at the sight of a bright red electric bullet train zooming past at some incredible speed right below you. Round a corner, and there's a mountainous heap of garbage, where a bulldozer roars to keep up with a waiting line of dump trucks. Just a abruptly, you come upon a six-lane expressway, with sinuous elevated turnoffs going in all directions. Half the trucks whizzing by seem to be cement mixers, a reminder that Japan's per capita cement consumption is the world's largest. The expressway is solidly lined with factory smokestacks, tall blocks of flats, drive-ins (including both McDonald's and Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried (chicken), automatic car washes, a bowling alley, and a yard with wrecked Toyotas, Datsuns, and Mazdas, piled five deep. Storefronts glitter with plate glass and aluminum, and neon strips flashing even in the daytime.

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Until now, cyclists have been safeguarded by steel girders set in iron posts, making a bicycle-pedestrian strip a few feet wide on one side of the road. This ends at the crossroads and you have to dismount and join the crowds in what the Japanese all a sukuramburu,m or "scramble," dashing for your life across the wide stretch of highway in the few seconds the pedestrian light shows green.

then, a quarter mile ahead, it's back to the other Japan of paddies and pine-covered hills and the hope that the cluster of tiny houses with bright blue and magenta roofs just down the road will turn out to be something you can at last call a village.

But no. Too many cars are parked beside the ornamental gardens; a factory is tucked behind the orchards; a body shop, motel, agricultural cooperative granary , and the inescapable doraivuinm (drive-in) suggest that the only place you're going to find an honest-to-goodness village is in a samuraim movie or maybe a buraku,m as remote mountain hamlets are known.

There is still lots of empty landscapes in Japan's intensely cultivated and increasingly industrialized countryside, but most villages, at least to the itinerant gaijinm (foreign) bicyclist, picking roads at random, seem oddly urban. In what other country would an astonishing 91 percent of the population, many of them former peasants, tell a recent public opinion poll they regard themselves as middle class? More than 75 percent of the Japanese now live in cities of over 50,000 people, but only 30 years ago the country was 60 percent rural.

Japan's 13-fold increase in real gross national product during those 30 years has been the fastest economic growth of any big country ever. How much, one asks, can the poor two-thirds of the world, most of its villagers, profit from the Japanese example?

In such a tightly knit, exclusive, urbanized rural society, a foreigner, just plunking in on a bicycle, armed only with a phrase book Ruth Benedict's psychological Baedeker, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," suffers a sense of isolation you would not get elsewhere in village Asia. Aside from the courteous smiles and "irasshaimase,"m or "Welcome," in restaurants and inns and the occasional "Harro, wheruh you frommm?" from a passing student, communication is not easy.

With his Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto civilization, an Japanese is Asian, but as American author Frank Gibney has put it, "a very special kind of Asian who has been conditioned by one hundred years of universal literacy, Beethoven symphonies, mass-circulation newspapers, flush toilets, . . . high-pressure advertising, and double-bookkeeping." How much can the world's true peasant villagers learn from him?

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When one looks at Japanese agriculture one finds an ingenious mix of biological science, the adaptation of petrochemicals and mechanical gadgetry. (And how does the rise of oil from $13 to about $30 a barrel in the past year affect all this reliance on petroleum?)

The main crop is rice, and the fields themselves -- flooded in May, faint green in June, yellow-pipe in autumn, and well-drained stubble the rest of the year -- are usually banked with expensive concrete blocks (but not all; some of the farmers I met were working out in the mud -- wearing rubber hip boots -- tamping down their paddy dikes).

These paddies are so productive that in the 1970s the government found it made sense to pay farmers $310 an acre just to leave them in weeds. It's still a problem. In April, Tokyo finally agreed to limit its rice exports to 1.6 million tons over the next four years, especially to Indonesia, where it was badly cutting into the American market.

Yet agriculture provides only 30 percent of total income to Japan's 5 million "farm families." Its share of Japan's total work force has fallen from 40 percent to 10 percent the past 25 years and the average age of farmers has steadily gone up; over a third are now over 60 (average life span in Japan has shot up from 55 in 1949 to 78 for a woman and 73 for a man.)

A typical Japanese farmer today is likely to hold down a factory or business job, relying on all kinds of new technology to keep his field work quick and easy. He is likely to grow his rice seedlings -- and vegetables -- under vinyl sheeting. So many fields are covered with this translucent plastic to protect crops from cold that your first impression of Japan from the air is of scattered snow.

The need for a petrochemical industry to supply all the vinyl that's needed reinforces Japanese -- and Korean -- arguments that industrial development should come before modermizing agriculture (in India, however, were villagers failed to emerge as a mass consumer market, it hasn't worked this way). The Japanese farmer also applies large amount of chemical fertilizer, no longer cutting grass in the hills and spreading it on his fields as green manure. I saw many half-used sacks of fertilizer just lying around unattended in the fields, suggesting a rare amount of rural trust.

The farmer will almost certainly be ultramechanized, with an array of minimachines designed for small paddies in two-or three-acre holdings. Everybody seems to own a 5-to 12-horsepower two-wheeled multipurpose tiller, which costs $1,500 to $2,500, including the mechanical attachments of plow, harrow, trailer, reaper-binder, and thresher. With it the farmer can do in one day what took four with oxen. Another gadget is the power grass-cutter, a sort of circular saw with a backpack engine. Concrete edging is eliminating the old hard labor of building impermeable banks. $S praying against insects and diseases is usually done for a small fee by the local cooperative, sometimes using helicopters.Authomatic bird scarers, however, have not completely eliminated gaudy scarecrows; I saw several with colored shirts holding parasols.

As Emerson said, "Build a better mousetrap. . . ." Japan's most spectacular farm machine-- now spreading to Korea -- is a power rice transplanter. I happened to be in Japan at transplanting time, traditionally done in groups, with a line of neighbors -- men, women, and children -- moving steadily across a field, thrusting little clumps of seedlings into the soft mud. In Japan this used to be an important spring ceremony; even Emperor Hirohito still dons his gum boots to plant a few symbolic seedlings on one of the imperial farms.

The new machine is loaded with a pack of seedlings grown in special trays and shoots down the field like a power mower as a high-speed mechanical arm snatches a few seedlings at a time and embeds them in straight rows at just the right depth. Such mechanization means you can now grow 1.5 tons of rice per acre with less than 30 days of work, instead of just 900 kilos (a shade under one ton) for 100 days of hard physical labor as before.

Yet even with all the gadgetry, a Japanese farmer has to reckon that each day he spends in the fields is costing him the $15 to $20 in wages he might be earning somewhere else. Japan's subsidized farm prices have been aimed partly at making it still worthwhile to grow rice, but especially at providing a form of welfare for older men whom the industrial boom has passed by. Their numbers grow fewer each year.

Tenant farmers prepared to do the field work for 75 percent of the crop are also fast disappearing. One solution is for village cooperatives to do most of the mechanized operations for about 40 percent of the harvest.

Amazingly, Japan's agricultural revolution has not meant bigger and fewer farms, as happened in Europe and America (the number of US farms has dropped from 6.8 million to 2.7 million just since (1935). Nor has increasing urbanization and the abandonment of traditional village tasks and values led to the kind of social alienation one finds in most countries. Crime in Asia, Africa, and Latin America generally rose sharply as ex-peasants flooded into the cities. In Japan since the agricultural revolution really got going after World War II it has dropped 50 percent. The United States now has five times the crime per head that Japan does and 105 times as many robberies.

What makes Japan so different? The Economist's deputy editor, Norman Macrae, has suggested it's "because so many Japanese live in groups which would notice any member's deviant behavior. They have created an urban society in which fewer people are lonely."

Mr. Gibney, who spent many years in Japan as a writer and businessman, has observed, "The Japanese city keeps its sanity, against most Western rules of logic and order, because its people are, paradoxically, villagers. In their hearts they remain villagers."

A British China expert, Roderick Macfarquhar, believes that the ease with which not only Japan but China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are modernizing can be traced to their common cultural heritage of Confucianism. He has described the characteristics of such post-Confucian societies as "self-confidence, social cohesion, subordination of the individual, education for action, bureaucratic tradition, and moralizing certitude."

One mystery is how Japan's modernizers can draw so effectively on such Confucian values as respect for age and authority, the identification of individual prosperity with the good of the community, and discipline and enthusiasm for work, while at the same time getting people to accept such antitraditional concepts as birth control or women working in the fields (they're reviving up those rice transplanters, too).

Whatever it is, it works for the post-Confucian East Asians and especially for the group-minded, village-minded Japanese. South Korea, which emulates Japanese techniques (including vinyl sheeting and the power rice transplanter) and had the world's fastest economic growth in 1973-78, currently exhorts its villagers with the slogan, "Discipline, self-help, and cooperation." What struck me about this slogan, coined by the late President Park Chung Hee, is how close it is to the remedy for American social ills suggested last year by Christopher Lasch (in his book "The Culture of Narcissism"). Lasch appealed for a revival of "the traditions of localism, self-help and community action" and went on, sounding like Mr. Park, to call for "discipline -- indispensable to the task of building a new order."

Culture is not so easy to export as small cars or color TVs. The Japanese, if they could find a better way to communicate with the rest of us, should give it a try. For to visit their villages is to be as awed and impressed as any gaijinm barbarian at the Meiji court.

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