In Japan, Making Farming Cool


Photo Courtesy of the Pasona Group Inc.

Yasuyuki Nambu is not a typical Japanese CEO.

The founder of Pasona, a temporary staffing company in the heart of Tokyo, Nambu mixes a carnival barker's bravado with the touchy, new-age mysticism of a yogi. He recently held a dinner party for a passel of dignitaries--including the Israeli ambassador and the former No. 2 of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party--treating them to a flute concert by his daughter and showing off the enzyme mud bath in his basement.

Nambu has been an out-of-the-box thinker for years. In 2003, he commissioned an urban farm in the basement of Pasona's headquarters in a Tokyo office tower. In six rooms, he and his staff grew flowers, tomatoes, cabbage and rice, drawing national media coverage.

The future of agriculture must be done in a fashionable way," Nambu said. "The young need to think it's cool to be a farmer."

Nambu said he did it to give young people agricultural training and to help draw attention to the environment (though critics pointed out that the lighting and heating needed to keep the plants alive were costs that outweighed any benefits). Whatever the case, his unusual creation comes to mind as Japan's political class tries to tackle a vexing problem: How to revitalize the nation's dying farming industry.

As Slate's Daniel Gross pointed out last week in his column about why Japanese eat so much American food, 70 percent of Japan's farmers are 60 or older. Japan has one of the world's lowest birthrates, and young people are fleeing rural areas in search of jobs in big cities. Furthermore, Japan's farms have been slow to modernize from the tiny, inefficient family-owned model of past generations, meaning the country must import a great deal of its food supply.


Photo Courtesy of the Pasona Group Inc.

To combat the problem, the Japanese government has been trying to rekindle interest in farming among the young--especially as the recession has made it tough to find work--by throwing money into grant programs and apprenticeships in which city slickers are sent to rural areas to learn the craft.

Perhaps Nambu, whom I met last month, is ahead of his time. When someone asked him how he could convince Japan's salary-men to remove their ties and head to the farms, he responded: "I want them never to take their ties off. The future of agriculture must be done in a fashionable way. The young need to think it's cool to be a farmer."

With that kind of upbeat thinking, it's no wonder Nambu's business card identifies him as Pasona's "Chief Encourage Officer."

Now, Nambu is stepping up his game. Last fall, he leased 10 acres from the local government on Awaji Island near his home town of Kobe and sent seven city dwellers interested in a career change to start a farm. The plan is to keep them there for three years, cultivating potatoes, onions, herbs, corn, and asparagus, before they are expected to start small farms of their own, said Aiko Umehara, a Pasona spokeswoman. If the program is successful, the company might replicate it on a larger scale, she added.

Nambu clearly relishes the attention his endeavors have brought him, appearing on television shows and in the newspapers. Cynics might say Pasona is using the farms for free publicity and to fulfill the kind of civic philanthropy that successful businesses are expected to provide.

I don't doubt that both things might be at least partially true. But it was hard, while talking with Nambu, not to be impressed with his infectious energy and sheer force of will. Last year, he announced a plan to open a new Pasona headquarters in 2010 with an even bigger garden full of strawberries and roses. He believes that employees who cultivate the plants will be more likely to avoid depression, a significant problem in stress-filled Japan.

After the dinner party, Nambu brought a group of us into the lush garden in front of his home in Azabu Juban, a ritzy Tokyo neighborhood. It was dark out and a spotlight lit him up as he charged forward under an orange tree, then excitedly lined us up for a picture in the middle of the greenery.

For a moment, it didn't feel like we were in Tokyo anymore.