TOKYO -- Contrary to popular opinion, Japan's farmers have not lost their political influence.
Since the mid-1950s, they have been integral to keeping the Liberal Democratic Party in power, save for two short intervals. But over the same decades, their numbers have declined. They now account for a sliver of the country's overall population, leading many to believe that the relative few who remain have lost their electoral sway.
But an analysis of previous upper house elections reveals that Japan's agricultural communities often swing the results.
With July 21, the date of the next upper house elections, fast approaching, farmers find themselves back in the spotlight.
In the coming elections, the LDP has identified 16 single-seat districts as battlegrounds, and five opposition parties are joining together to field a single candidate in each.
Many single-seat constituencies are in rural areas, which before the 1990s remained loyal to the LDP. But no longer.
The is easily ascertained by comparing the ratio of votes garnered by the LDP's proportional representation candidates in urban districts with the ratio in rural districts. For this purpose, 14 prefectures where farmers account for less than 3% of the population are deemed to be urban districts, and 33 prefectures where farmers account for 3% or more of the population are considered rural.
Beginning with an upper house election in 2013 and running through a lower house contest in 2017, four elections in all, the ratio of votes won by LDP candidates in urban districts was almost unchanged. But the ratio swung up and down in the rural districts.
The determining factor behind the swings? Money. Many farmers traded sides when the government allowed more agricultural imports into the country and when the government pacified them with financial handouts.
In the 1989 upper house elections, the LDP suffered a stunning loss after the administration of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita decided to liberalize orange and beef imports from the U.S.
When a multilateral trade accord was reached in the Uruguay Round of negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1993, the government allotted 6 trillion yen ($55.31 billion) to farmers to help them weather any adverse effects.
In the 2009 lower house elections, the Democratic Party of Japan promised subsidies and won support from farmers.
Although the LDP scored a landslide victory in the 2016 upper house election, held just after Japan signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, opposition candidates won in five of six prefectures in the northeastern region of Tohoku.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying hard to recover support from farmers. In his policy address to the Diet in January, he stressed the allocation of more than 600 billion yen to a land improvement budget, three times more than the outlay before his return to power. The Abe administration also set aside a supplementary budget of more than 500 billion yen.
Despite its strong political voice, Japan's farm population has cratered. The country had 11.75 million farmers in 1960, 4.12 million in 1980 and 1.45 million last year.
Japan's total population in 1960 was 92.5 million; today it is 126 million.
Despite accounting for a sliver of Japan's population, farmers have maintained their political sway by voting as a bloc and effectively creating a swing vote. As a result, they receive preferential treatment in government budgets.
Which way will they swing less than two weeks from now?
Perhaps a better question is: Will they hold together?
The political organ of the Akita Prefectural Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives has decided to support the incumbent LDP lawmaker in the coming election. But three of the federation's 13 branches will free their members to vote their minds because, as the head of one cooperative put it, "it's impossible to organize farmers for voting."
Over the past 30 years as the governing and opposition camps have competed to win this swing vote, nearly 100 trillion yen has been doled out to farmers. As a result, many of Japan's farms remain small and agricultural reforms have been delayed.
There is another big trend in Japanese agriculture. Farmers' average age is 66.6, and those 65 and older account for 68% of the agrarian population.
More government subsidies cannot reverse the aging process. Instead of promising more taxpayer money to this dwindling segment of the population, the ruling and opposition parties should be promising policies designed to rebuild the farm sector into something that is attractive to young people and venture businesses.