Smart farming seen as the solution in Japan’s ageing society
Japan is a world leader in advanced smart farming, employing technologies such as drones and various types of robots.
For the past 4 years, cutting-edge digital technology has been utilised to address severe labour shortages, an ageing society, and the low take-up of farming by the younger generation – the average age of farm workers in Japan is 67 years.
Currently, industrial technology is playing a crucial role in modernising and boosting Japan’s agricultural sector for increased exports. In 2019, the combined export value of agricultural, forestry and fisheries products reached 9.121 trillion yen (approximately 87.9 billion US dollars or 2.16 trillion baht), marking the seventh consecutive year of record-breaking figures.
Nevertheless, the Japanese agricultural industry faces significant challenges, with plans to achieve its individual export goals of 2 trillion yen by 2025 and 5 trillion yen by 2030.
The Japanese government is therefore promoting agricultural policy reform and increasing investment to foster the development of smart agric
In 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) announced a strategy to expand the smart agriculture technology and services business.
As part of the MAFF strategy, collaborations with private companies, universities, and research institutions aim to address labour shortages and maintain agricultural production quality.
Numerous pilot projects have been introduced to explore innovative possibilities.
At the same time, farmers and non-agricultural entities have increasingly established agricultural companies, aligning with Japan’s agricultural land law reforms.
The emergence of agricultural companies has become a pivotal force in large-scale production, elevating the strategic management of agricultural businesses and accelerating industrial cluster development.
The Japanese government plays a crucial role in leveraging technology across various organisations, accelerating production efficiency, and implementing agricultural policy reforms to promote the creation of platforms for sharing scientific and technological data.
Progressive legal reforms are also driving the adoption of smart farming solutions, such as drone and autonomous vehicle usage, pesticide application innovations, and the rapid implementation of essential infrastructure, like the Quasi-Zenith satellite system or the WAGRI agricultural data-sharing platform.
Government agencies collaborate with non-profit research centres and private entities to establish and maintain systems like WAGRI, aggregating data on weather conditions, agricultural areas, production forecasts, soil quality and other statistical information.
This ensures sufficient data for farmers and enhances the potential for applying technology and business solutions.
In another nod to tech, in 2021, the Japanese government introduced an open Application Programming Interface (API) system, facilitating farmers' access to agricultural machinery data from multiple manufacturers for increased convenience and efficiency.
Of course, none of this can be done without money.
The government therefore provides financial support tailored to the needs of farmers and organisations to facilitate the agricultural sector's adoption of machinery and agricultural technology.
This includes loans and subsidies for farmers practising continuous cultivation, those in geographically challenging areas, and small-scale organisations.
Emphasis is placed on the intensive use of robotics, ICT machinery, and environmentally friendly agricultural machinery, particularly in hilly and mountainous terrain.
To facilitate financial convenience, the government has implemented measures to support loan guarantees for financial institutions by increasing financial support for rural credit cooperatives. Additionally, social cohesion and collaboration in Japanese society accelerate knowledge and experience sharing through platforms.
Collaborative procurement strategies, often led by agricultural cooperatives, contribute to these efforts.
Agriculture has its own culture and local practices, shaped by both regional traditions and geographical conditions worldwide. However, the experiences gained from the agricultural business system in Japan could offer valuable lessons for developing regions.
These regions can adapt and apply the technologies and practices tested in Japan to enhance local agricultural production.
One example of such collaboration can be found at Bell Farm, located in Kikugawa, Shizuoka Prefecture.
It specialises in cultivating medium-sized tomatoes, specifically the Akademi variety, known for its sweetness and excellent taste.
This particular tomato variety is well-suited for use in various dishes, such as salads, and is commonly consumed raw in Japan.
Tomatoes are the second-largest agricultural crop in Japan after rice, owing to their widespread popularity and consumption globally, both raw and processed forms such as sauces and soups.
Norihisa Okada, the managing director of Bell Farm, says that for him, smart agriculture involves making processes digital and more logical, then analysing and learning from the results.
Since 2019, Bell Farm has been using the Profarm T-Cube, a temperature-controlled greenhouse that serves as the central hub for all operations, enabling year-round crop production. Additionally, the farm employs robotic sorting machines with image recognition software developed by the Denso Group, a global automotive company.
These machines can inspect individual tomatoes, detecting sugar content, damage and size. The technologies have been developed by Denso Group, leveraging their expertise in robotics and industrial automation to create agricultural solutions.
The creation of a nationally recognised brand is a crucial factor that defines countries with successful export strategies.
Yuito Yamada, a partner at McKinsey & Company Japan specialising in agriculture, energy, and sustainability, emphasises the importance of a deep understanding of both the domestic and export markets, along with clear marketing strategies that align between the two markets.
Japanese producers, he says, must increasingly focus on customer-centric models and a well-developed marketing strategy that has significant value in promoting products domestically as well as in international markets.
“The agricultural sector in Japan must preserve and enhance the high-quality image of Japanese agricultural products. This involves incorporating biotechnology, genomics understanding, and cost-effective agricultural automation systems, leveraging strengths. It aims to establish and utilize marketing and export strategies effectively,” Yamada says.