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Agriculture, forestry, and fishing-Japan

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Agriculture, forestry, and fishing-Japan


Agricultural production has remained relatively stable since the 1990s; however, for many years agriculture has accounted for only a tiny fraction of the GDP. The agricultural sector continues to employ a relatively large proportion of the working population compared with its contribution to national income, but many farmers have left agriculture for employment in manufacturing and the service sector, and most others rely on outside occupations for a substantial part of their income. As younger people left the farms, the median age of farmers rose steadily.

Japanese agriculture is characterized by a large number of small and often inefficient farms. Larger farms generally are found in Hokkaido, where units of 25 acres (10 hectares) or more are fairly common. The country’s principal crop is rice. Other important farm products include wheat, barley, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, and tea.

The government’s agricultural policy has encouraged self-sufficiency in the more important commodities, although that goal has been achieved only for rice and sweet potatoes (and by 2000 domestic production for both commodities was less than what was needed). Thus, in reality, nearly half the country’s food requirements must be imported. A central feature of the policy of self-sufficiency has been strong protection for local rice production and an artificially high producer price for rice. Legislation enacted in 1995 sought to introduce market principles in the agricultural pricing structure and to place more importance on the needs of consumers. Rice imports were partially liberalized that same year, and the ban on imported rice was removed in 1999, though steep customs duties have remained in place.

Livestock raising, an important farming activity, is generally practiced on a small scale; the largest dairy and beef cattle herds are in Hokkaido. Most feeds must be imported, and production costs are high. In addition, after beef imports were liberalized in 1991, foreign competition began forcing farmers to adopt more efficient production methods and sped up the process of creating larger, more commercial livestock operations.


Timber resources are extensive, consisting of broad-leaved and coniferous forests, but much of the forestland is located in inaccessible mountain areas. Most of the forest area is privately owned, and much of it is distributed among a large number of relatively small holders. The rest is publicly owned; large-scale reforestation has taken place in these areas, especially those that were excessively logged before and during World War II. However, despite Japan’s considerable forest cover, forestry is a marginal activity. In part this is because of the inaccessibility of many of the best stands, but it is also because the domestic logging sector is highly unprofitable, beset with high labour costs, an aging workforce, and other inefficiencies. Even with the addition of limited logging in reforested areas, domestic production cannot come close to satisfying Japan’s huge demand for timber, and the great bulk of Japan’s wood needs are imported.

Japan relies heavily on the sea as a source of food. It has one of the largest fish catches of any country in the world, much of it derived from long-distance deep-sea fisheries. In spite of its dominant international position, the Japanese fishing sector faces some serious problems. Local fisheries are depleted by overfishing and pollution, especially in the Inland Sea, while deep-sea fishing must contend with restrictions placed upon it by countries that claim a 200-nautical-mile (370-km) economic zone in their coastal waters. The number of workers engaged in fishing has declined sharply, and, as with agriculture, the fishery worker population has aged rapidly. Thus, domestic production has been edging down for decades, and imports of fishery products exceed exports. Aquaculture of fish, shellfish (notably clams and oysters), and seaweed is of increasing importance; in addition, cultured pearls long have been significant.

  • Resources and power

With few exceptions, Japan’s mineral reserves are small, and the quality of those mined is often poor. Coal, iron ore, zinc, lead, copper, sulfur, gold, and silver are among the most abundant minerals (in relative terms), with lesser quantities of tungsten, chromite, and manganese. Japan also has large deposits of limestone. There is an almost complete lack of nickel, cobalt, bauxite (the ore of aluminum), nitrates, rock salt, potash, phosphates, and crude petroleum and natural gas.

Coal reserves are concentrated in Hokkaido and Kyushu. Oil deposits are meagre, domestic oil production accounting for a negligible fraction of Japan’s oil consumption. The main oil- and gas-bearing belt extends from northern Honshu on the Sea of Japan to the Ishikari-Yūfutsu lowlands in Hokkaido. Natural gas reserves also have been found in eastern Chiba prefecture and offshore east of Tōhoku. Japanese iron ore is of poor quality and is obtained mostly from northern and western Honshu. Reserves of copper, once Japan’s most important metallic ore, are nearly depleted; lead and zinc are often found in conjunction with copper.


Mining is an unimportant and declining branch of the economy. The extractive industry is characterized by small and relatively inefficient mines that do not lend themselves to the application of modern, large-scale mining methods. With the exception of gold extraction, mining for metallic ores plummeted in the early 21st century. Mining for iron and copper essentially ceased after 2000, and Japan now imports virtually all its needs for those two ores. Other metallic ores of economic significance include silver, lead, and zinc. Limestone quarrying is widespread throughout the Japanese archipelago.

Coal, the most important mineral mined throughout most of Japan’s industrial period, is now extracted as a marginal operation. The coal industry suffers from uneconomic production, competition from cheaper foreign coal, and the general use of oil since World War II. Most of the remaining production is in Hokkaido. Virtually the whole of the country’s output of petroleum and natural gas comes from Niigata prefecture. Natural gas also is produced in Chiba and Fukushima prefectures.


The rate of Japan’s consumption of energy leveled off in the mid-1990s, after having increased steadily for decades. Per capita consumption of electricity is comparable to that for most industrialized countries, but that for oil and natural gas is considerably lower. The largest single source of energy is oil; almost the entire demand is satisfied through imports, an important share of which comes from fields developed by Japanese companies. Coal, largely imported, constitutes a much smaller proportion of overall consumption. Gas production is greatest for natural gas and liquefied natural gas and in terms of energy output is comparable to that for coal.

Most of Japan’s total electric power is generated by thermal plants. For decades oil was the most important fuel source, but generation by coal-fired plants has increased significantly as part of the effort to reduce Japan’s dependency on foreign oil. Also of growing importance are power stations burning liquefied natural gas, especially as a means of reducing levels of greenhouse gases and other pollutants emitted.

Since the 1970s the government has promoted an energy policy that favours the development of nuclear power generation as a nonpolluting, domestically produced energy source. This program raised the contribution of nuclear power to approximately one-third of the country’s total installed electric-generating capacity. Several dozen nuclear plants are now in operation throughout the country.

As a result of Japan’s mountainous terrain, the country’s ample hydroelectric potential is distributed unevenly. In addition, many hydroelectric power plants cannot operate at full capacity for more than a few months of the year, because of seasonal variations in precipitation and the difficulty of constructing adequate storage facilities. Hydroelectric development is largely concentrated in central Honshu (along the Shinano, Tenryū, Tone, and Kiso rivers), in Tōhoku, and in some parts of Kyushu. This pattern of distribution ensures that Japan’s hydroelectric capabilities are well located in relation to the important industrial areas. Although there is still undeveloped potential, the best sites already have been utilized for large plants, and further additions to capacity have consisted of smaller-scale operations. In addition, a number of pumped storage plants have been constructed, in which water is pumped up to a reservoir above the hydroelectric facility during off-peak hours to be released for power generation during periods of peak demand.