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Digital Technology Revolutionizing Urban Farming in Tokyo

The Japan News
Sanpei Hattori uses smart glasses to get advice from an agricultural expert at NTT AgriTechnology’s greenhouse in Chofu, Tokyo.

Small-scale farmers in Tokyo are increasingly expanding the boundaries of agriculture through the use of digital technology and other means.

“This tomato is splitting; is it still viable?” asked Sanpei Hattori in an experimental greenhouse of NTT AgriTechnology Corp. in Chofu, Tokyo, in mid-October.

“It’s probably because you abruptly gave water to a place that used to be very dry,” replied Tomonori Akiyama, a specialist at the Tokyo Metropolitan Agricultural Research Center in Tachikawa, situated about 18 kilometers from the greenhouse. “It’s not a disease, so please don’t worry.”

Akiyama provided his online guidance after observing video and listening to explanations from Hattori via the latter’s “smart glasses.”

“[Operating online], I can offer advice to many more farmers than I could if I was visiting them in person,” Akiyama said.

NTT AgriTechnology, a subsidiary of telecommunications giant NTT Group, has been working on an experiment with the Tokyo metropolitan government to apply digital technology to agriculture since 2020. The greenhouse is equipped with a 5G antenna that enables communication with remote locations, a high-resolution 4K camera with a zoom function, and a mobile camera that allows crops to be monitored from anywhere.

Compared to rural areas, Tokyo-based agriculture is characterized by its wide scattering of small-scale farmers. Agricultural cooperative experts and the Tokyo metropolitan government have long had to deal with drawn-out, labor-intensive processes in terms of schooling farmers, mostly due to traffic jams and the wide dispersion of agricultural personnel. It is hoped that digital technology can help solve such problems. Indeed, some farmers have already begun using the technology.

NTT AgriTechnology Senior Vice President Hirotaka Kobayashi believes such efforts will lead to lower costs in the agricultural realm and make it easier to enter the industry, saying: “By leveraging technology, we hope to turn agriculture — an industry with a falling number of people — into a desirable profession.”

The Japan News
A crop-monitoring mobile installed in NTT AgriTechnology’s greenhouse in Chofu, Tokyo.

Future education

Digital technology is already being used to teach the next generation of farmers. In 2019, the Tokyo Metropolitan Engei High School in Setagaya Ward began focusing on education in data-driven agricultural operations.

Sensors installed throughout the school’s farm area record field conditions such as temperature, humidity and soil moisture content. In classrooms, students monitor data on tablet devices to learn how to predict when crops will bloom and be harvestable.

Traditional farming relies on observation and experience, and it takes time to become a full-fledged agriculturalist. However, if students can learn how to read and interpret data, aspirant farmers will have a higher chance of success.

“The class has changed my impression of agriculture,” said Shoma Sakamoto, a first-year student who hopes to become a farming expert.

School Principal Naoto Namikawa noted, “By learning to utilize technology and interpret data, students can strive for a future in the agricultural industry.”

The Japan News
Students learn how to interpret data collected from the school’s farm at Tokyo Metropolitan Engei High School in Setagaya, Tokyo.

According to the Tokyo metropolitan government, there were 7,974 full-time private farmers in Tokyo as of 2020 — a 54% drop from the number 20 years ago. Introducing advanced technology to reduce farm labor and costs and offering more detailed guidance to farmers are expected to help stem further decline.

However, such technology must overcome financial challenges. According to NTT AgriTechnology, it costs between several million yen and several tens of millions of yen to purchase antennas, smart glasses and cover communication fees for a 400-square-meter greenhouse — a high hurdle for Tokyo-based small farmers. A representative of the NTT AgriTechnology’s firm said, “We need a platform for farmers to be able to subscribe to this equipment with cooperation from the government.”

The Tokyo metropolitan government is subsidizing farmers’ efforts to introduce modern technologies and strengthen agricultural facilities with the aim of boosting Tokyo farmers’ management capabilities.