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Agriculture, forestry, and fishing form the primary sector of industry of the Japanese economy, together with the Japanese mining industry, but together they account for only 1.3% of gross national product. Only 20% of Japan's land is suitable for cultivation, and the agricultural economy is highly subsidized and protected.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing dominated the Japanese economy until the 1940s, but thereafter declined into relative unimportance (see Agriculture in the Empire of Japan). In the late 19th century (Meiji period), these sectors had accounted for more than 80% of employment. Employment in agriculture declined in the prewar period, but the sector was still the largest employer (about 50% of the work force) by the end of World War II. It was further declined to 23.5% in 1965, 11.9% in 1977, and to 7.2% in 1988. The importance of agriculture in the national economy later continued its rapid decline, with the share of net agricultural production in GNP finally reduced between 1975 and 1989 from 4.1% to 3% In the late 1980s, 85.5% of Japan's farmers were also engaged in occupations outside of farming, and most of these part-time farmers earned most of their income from nonfarming activities.
Japan's economic boom that began in the 1950s left farmers far behind in both income and agricultural technology. They were attracted to the government's food control policy under which high rice prices were guaranteed and farmers were encouraged to increase the output of any crops of their own choice. Farmers became mass producers of rice, even turning their own vegetable gardens into rice fields. Their output swelled to over 14 million metric tons in the late 1960s, a direct result of greater cultivated area and increased yield per unit area, owing to improved cultivation techniques.
Three types of farm households developed: those engaging exclusively in agriculture (14.5% of the 4.2 million farm households in 1988, down from 21.5% in 1965); those deriving more than half their income from the farm (14.2% down from 36.7% in 1965); and those mainly engaged in jobs other than farming (71.3% up from 41.8% in 1965). As more and more farm families turned to nonfarming activities, the farm population declined (down from 4.9 million in 1975 to 4.8 million in 1988). The rate of decrease slowed in the late 1970s and 1980s, but the average age of farmers rose to 51 years by 1980, twelve years older than the average industrial employee.
The most striking feature of Japanese agriculture is the shortage of farmland. The 49,000 square kilometres (19,000 sq mi) under cultivation constituted just 13.2% of the total land area in 1988. However, the land is intensively cultivated. Rice paddies occupy most of the countryside, whether on the alluvial plains, the terraced slopes, or wetlands and coastal bays. Non-paddy farmland share the terraces and lower slopes and are planted with wheat and barley in the autumn and with sweet potatoes, vegetables, and dry rice in the summer. Intercropping is common: such crops are alternated with beans and peas.
Japanese agriculture has been characterized as a "sick" sector because it must contend with a variety of constraints, such as the rapidly diminishing availability of arable land and falling agricultural incomes. The problem of surplus rice was further aggravated by extensive changes in the diets of many Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. Even a major rice crop failure did not reduce the accumulated stocks by more than 25% of the reserve. In 1990, Japan was 67% self-sufficient in agricultural products and provided for around 30% of its cereal and fodder needs.
Livestock raising is a minor activity. Demand for beef rose in the 1900s, and farmers often shifted from dairy farming to production of high-quality (and high-cost) beef, such as Kobe beef. Throughout the 1980s, domestic beef production met over 2% of demand. In 1991, as a result of heavy pressure from the United States, Japan ended import quotas on potatoes as well as citrus fruit. Milk cows are numerous in Hokkaido, where 25% of farmers run dairies, but milk cows are also raised in Iwate, in Tōhoku, and near Tōkyō and Kōbe. Beef cattle are mostly concentrated in western Honshū, and on Kyūshū. Hogs, the oldest domesticated animals raised for food, are found everywhere. Pork is the most popular meat.
The nation's forest resources, although abundant, have not been well developed to sustain a large lumber industry. Of the 245,000 km² of forests, 198.000 km² are classified as active forests. Most often forestry is a part-time activity for farmers or small companies. About a third of all forests are owned by the government. Production is highest in Hokkaido and in Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Fukushima, Gifu, Miyazaki, and Kagoshima prefectures. Nearly 33.5 million cubic meters of roundwood were produced in 1986, of which 98% was destined for industrial uses.
Japan ranked second in the world behind China in tonnage of fish caught—11.9 million tons in 1989, down slightly from 11.1 million metric tons in 1980. After the 1973 energy crisis, deep-sea fishing in Japan declined, with the annual catch in the 1980s averaging 2 million tons. Offshore fisheries accounted for an average of 50% of the nation's total fish catches in the late 1980s although they experienced repeated ups and downs during that period. Coastal fisheries had smaller catches than northern sea fisheries in 1986 and 1987. As a whole, Japan's fish catches registered a slower growth in the late 1980s. By contrast, Japan's import of marine products increased greatly in the 1980s, and was nearly 2 million tons in 1989.
The Japanese fishing industry, both domestic and overseas, has long been centered on the Tsukiji fish market, in Tokyo, which is one of the world's largest wholesale markets for fresh, frozen, and processed seafood.
Japan also has greatly advanced the techniques of aquaculture or sea farming. In this system, artificial insemination and hatching techniques are used to breed fish and shellfish, which are then released into rivers or seas. These fish and shellfish are caught after they grow bigger. Salmon is raised this way.
Japan has more than 2,000 fishing ports, including Nagasaki, in southwest Kyūshū; Otaru, Kushiro, and Abashiri in Hokkaidō. Major fishing ports on the Pacific coast of Honshū include, Hachinohe, Kesennuma, and Ishinomaki along the Sanriku coast, as well as Choshi, Yaizu, Shimizu, and Misaki to the east and south of Tokyo.
Japan is also one of the world's few whaling nations. As a member of the International Whaling Commission, the government pledged that its fleets would restrict their catch to international quotas, but it attracted international opprobrium for its failure to sign an agreement placing a moratorium on catching sperm whales. Currently Japan conducts "research whaling" for minke whales in the oceans surrounding Antarctica.