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World crowds in on Japanese farmers

"We can eat sashimi any day we want, but we can't make a decent living farming," said Daisaku Hasebe. Mr. Hasebe's statement mirrors the dilemma of farmers in formerly remote areas such as Tadami. Sashimi -- slices of raw fish -- is the Japanese equivalent of T-bone steak.

Tadami, only a 100 miles from the sea, is a tableland cradled by some of Japan's least accessible central mountains.

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"There has been an enormous roadbuilding and improvement program throughout the country during the past 10 to 15 years," Mr. Hasebe continued. "There are no remote areas in Japan any more."

Progressive brings its own problems. "Before, we were an isolated community, " said Mr. Hasebe. "Most of us lived in the same small thatched-roof cottages. We ate the same food. We lived in the same way. Because we were so remote, we grew our own vegetables as well as our own rice.

"But now, it doesn't pay us to grow many kinds of vegetables because the townspeople of Tadami can buy much better ones that come from the lowlands. Nowadays we are competing with all the other farmers of Japan -- farmers whose geographical and weather conditions are much better than ours."

"Yes, of course," he added, "the government purchase price of rice has gone up, and so have our living standards. Our costs, too. When we didn't know what the rest of the world was like, we were contented with our lot. Now all of us want to live like city folk. We want to send our sons to universities -- even though we know that once they go, they're not likely to come back.

Mr. Hasebe says it is difficult to lure families to farm life. "As much as our lives have improved, people still tend to think of farming as dirty work. Girls want to work in offices or schools, and if not, in factories.

"We used to be able to josh a young fellow if he got to be over 30 and still hadn't found a wife. "Still looking for the perfect woman,' we'd say. But things are too serious for joking now. By the time a man gets to be 40 and is still a bachelor -- and I know quite a few -- we just have to tiptoe around the subject and hope against hope that he will find someone -- anyone."

Mr. Hasebe, a slender, wiry man whose forebearers for seven generations were headmen of a hamlet just outside Tadami, lives in a large farmhouse with a beautiful thatched roof -- the only thatched roof left in the hamlet, except for a smaller cottage preserved as a museum of feudal-day farming.

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"It costs three times as much to put up a thatched roof as it does a tin one, " said Mr. Hasebe. "Furthermore, tin roofs don't need repairs, whereas a thatched roof almost always needs some work done to it after a heavy snow.

"Hereabouts we have three meters [nearly 10 feet] of hard snow during the winter. Not to mention drifts. At least four times each winter I have to push the snow off my roof, and that is a real job. In warmer climates, a thatched roof will last 30 or 40 years, but hereabouts we're lucky if it lasts 20 years. Still, it's a marvelous thing to have -- warm in winter, cool in summer."

All the other houses around Mr. Hasebe's are made of prefabricated wood and plastic panels and have galvanized iron roofs -- just like houses in town.

"My house is nice, but its drafty," said Mr. Hasebe. "I'm afraid nothing can beat aluminum sash windows to keep out drafts, however esthetic the traditional farmhouse may look. All these houses you see around you were built by farmers. Each one of them replaced a traditional thatched-roof cottage.

"This hamlet used to have 30 houses when I was a boy, and it still has 30 houses. But three of them have no one living in them any more. Their owners have all gone to live in the cities. They've kept their house and land, in case they ever want to come back. But I have a feeling they're not going to."

Mr. Hasebe's only son is at medical school in Tokyo. "He's told me that if he fails to make it as a doctor, he knows he can always come back here. But it looks as if I am going to be the last of the Hasebes who is a farmer."

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