Amendment to the Fisheries Act in Japan

Amendment to the Fisheries Act in Japan

Published: 2020.11.26
Accepted: 2020.11.26
Meiji Gakuin University


Japan’s Fisheries Act was established in 1949 under the leadership of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces. This Act presents an effective framework for mediating conflicts between fishermen in coastal fisheries in the early post-Pacific War period. However, it has become outdated and has three drawbacks: (i) unpreparedness for declining leadership of fishermen’s cooperatives, (ii) reluctance toward outsiders’ entry in the fishery industry, and (iii) failure to protect marine resources in the emergence of new fishing technologies. In 2018, the government submitted a bill for a large-size amendment to the Fisheries Act. The bill has passed through the Diet and will be effective from December 2020. However, this amendment is not sufficiently extensive to solve the abovementioned problems.


Japan’s fishery policy is undergoing significant changes. The Fisheries Act, which was established in 1949, has provided a basic structure for Japan’s fishery policy. The bill for a large-size amendment to Fisheries Act was passed through the Diet in December 2018. The enactment of the amended Fisheries Act is scheduled in December 2020 (to distinguish between the Fisheries Act before and after the amendment, hereafter, this paper refers to the Fisheries Act after the amendment as the “New Fisheries Act”). This is the biggest revision in Japan’s fishery policy in the post-Pacific War period[i].

This paper aims to provide answers to two questions: What is the purpose of this amendment? How will Japan’s fishery policy change?

Following Introduction, the next section reviews the history of Japan’s fishery policy up until 1947. The third section outline the contents of the current Fisheries Act[ii]. The fourth section discusses problems in the current Fisheries Act. The fifth section describes characteristics of the New Fisheries Act in comparison with the current one. The sixth section concludes the paper.


Microeconomics textbooks describe the fishery industry as a typical example of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which people would devour all the common resources in a laissez-faire economy. More precisely, in terms of fishing, if all the people were allowed to fish freely, they would try to catch all the fish themselves. The pursuit of personal gain takes priority over the common welfare. Therefore, marine resources would be damaged to the point of being unrecoverable. Conversely, if all the people with access to marine resources followed an agreement to maintain the total fish catch at a renewable level, they could eternally enjoy income from fishing. Thus, organizing all fishermen along their common interests is the core problem in the fishery industry.

Moreover, as various types of fisheries are possible in Japanese coastal areas, allocating marine resources among fishermen is also a critical problem. For efficient utilization of marine resources, effective fishing plans (i.e., plans to stipulate who should engage in what type of fishing at which coastal area within a fishing village) must be designed and implemented.

During Japan’s feudal period, each fishing village developed its own (usually unwritten) rules and regulations regarding the use of marine resources and allocation of tasks and benefits in coastal fisheries (including rules for protection of marine resources, such as setting no-fishing periods and/or areas). These rules and regulations gradually evolved based on historical experience and legends. This custom is called Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido. It was applied only for traditional types of coastal fisheries. For offshore fisheries, no particular regulations were followed[iv]. This is because sailing and fishing technologies for offshore fisheries were considerably underdeveloped in the feudal period that there was almost no risk of overfishing.

Even after the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji government found that Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido was useful for organizing traditional types of coastal fisheries. Thus, the Japanese government required to set up a fishermen’s union in each fishing village. This union was responsible for the coordination among fishermen in coastal fisheries based on Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido.

With the inflow of modern fishery technologies from the West, new types of fisheries emerged rapidly and generated conflicts with traditional ones. This became a problem. For example, demarcated fishery and large-size fixed net fishery—which emerged after the Meiji Restoration—and traditional types of coastal fisheries used the same water locations. Moreover, new fishing facilities and equipment, such as trawl boats, enhanced the risk of overfishing in both coastal and offshore waters. As Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido did not cover these new types (and technologies) of fisheries, the Meiji government established licensing systems for them. However, experts point out that the government’s decision on who should be a licensee was arbitrary[v]. Often, wealthy families in urban areas received the licenses and reaped profits by subletting the licenses to local fishermen. Moreover, because of the lack of scientific evidences in issuing licenses, marine resources were not properly protected.

In 1943, as a part of Japan’s general mobilization policy for the Pacific War, fishermen’s unions underwent reformation and became fishery associations, which were controlled by the military government. Fishermen were required to belong to these associations in their villages. The role of organizer of Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido was also transferred from fishermen’s unions to fishery associations.


From 1945 to 1952, Japan was democratized under the leadership of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces (GHQ). In 1948, as a part of GHQ’s democratization policy, fishery associations were replaced by new organizations called fishermen’s cooperatives. Unlike in the case of fishery associations, fishermen were not legally required to participate in fishermen’s cooperatives. However, as will be discussed later, some types of fisheries were available only for members of these cooperatives. Most of the personnel and physical resources of the fishery associations were transferred to fishermen’s cooperatives. Accordingly, these cooperatives took over the role of organizer of Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido from fishery associations.

The Fisheries Act was framed in 1949 as the centerpiece of GHQ’s reform on Japan’s fishery policy. The Fisheries Act sets 66 marine zones as the basic unit of fishery, with each zone belonging to one of the 47 prefectures. The Fisheries Act stipulates each marine zone to have its own administrative committee for the fishery policy, called Sea-area Fisheries Adjustment Committee (SFAC). Each SFAC consists of 15 members: 9 are elected among fishermen, and the remaining 6 are appointed by the prefectural governor (4 are academicians, and the remaining 2 are representatives of the public interest). The term of the SFAC members is for four years. The Public Offices Election Act is applied to the election for the nine members. However, before the election, fishermen’s cooperatives usually discuss who should be the candidates. Hence, only nine fishermen run for the membership, and all of them are elected without voting. The chosen nine candidates are mostly among the influential members in fishermen’s cooperatives.

The SFAC also has the authority to make suggestions and proposals to the prefectural governor. For example, the prefectural governor is required to obtain the approval of the corresponding SFAC when he or she wants to issue the licenses and fishing rights in a sea marine zone as will be discussed below.

The Fisheries Act established three administrative categories of fisheries: Kyoka Gyogyo (“licensed fishery”), Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo (“fishing-right-based fishery”), and Jiyu Gyogyo (“free fishery”).

 “Licensed fishery” is applied to types of fishing that are extremely effective in catching fish that excessive competition can occur among fishermen if the technologies are used without regulations. Only those who receive the license from the authorities are allowed to engage in fishing activities. The licensing authority is either the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries or the prefectural governor according to the type of fishery.

“Fishing-right-based fishery” is Japan’s unique system for coastal fisheries in which members of fishermen’s cooperatives are prioritized when granting fishing rights. There are three types of “fishing-right-based fishery”: Kyodo Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo for small-scale fixed-shore net fishery and types of fishing that were done under Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido in the pre-Pacific War period; Kukaku Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo for demarcated fishery; and Teichi Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo for large-scale shore net fishery.

For Kyodo Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo, only members of fishermen’s cooperatives were allowed to engage in fishing as organized under the cooperatives. Hence, it can be seen as a renamed version of Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido. For Kukaku Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo and Teichi Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo, any economic entities (whether natural or legal persons) who want to engage in demarcated fishery and large-size shore net fishery should apply to the prefectural governor for the fishing rights. If multiple applicants want to engage in the same fishing type in the same location, the Fisheries Act stipulates that the first priority order for granting rights should be given to fishermen’s cooperative.

As discussed previously, in the pre-Pacific-War Japanese licensing systems for demarcated fishery and fixed-shore net fishery, wealthy classes living in urban areas received more favorable treatment when obtaining licenses. GHQ considered such treatment to be undemocratic. This is why the fishermen’s cooperatives were listed at the top of the priority order in the Fisheries Act.

The term of the fishing rights granted under Kyodo Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo, Kukaku Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo, and Teichi Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo is ten or five years. However, as long as those who hold the rights demonstrate their ability and will to continue engaging in fishery, their rights will be renewed.

“Free fishery” refers to all types of fishing that are not included in the other two lists. Anyone is allowed to engage in “free fishery” freely. Pole-and-line fishing for sea bream is an example of a “free fishery” activity.


Apparently, the Fisheries Act tried to tactfully solve difficult problems such as preventing the tragedy of the commons and mediating conflicts among fishermen. However, the Fisheries Act had (and still has) three problems:

  1. Unpreparedness for declining organizing ability of fishermen’s cooperatives

The system of fishermen’s cooperatives is the embodiment of Isson Sen-yu Gyojo Seido, and the Fisheries Act implicitly assumes that fishermen’s cooperatives are capable of organizing fishermen in their jurisdictions. This assumption would be correct when fishermen have strong traditional feeling of unity. However, according to the development of individualism in the post-Pacific War period, the traditional culture and practices in fishing communities are now gradually fading. Hence, it is getting difficult for fishermen’s cooperatives to organize fishermen. The Fisheries Act is unprepared for such situations.

  1. Shortage of outsiders in the fishery industry

The work ethics among Japanese laborers are changing; younger generations are moving away from manual work, including fishing. Moreover, the birthrate is falling and due to the changing lifestyles in Japanese families, the younger generations are less interested in continuing their family businesses. Hence, many of the fishermen’s cooperatives are suffering from aging population and shortage of successors. This problem could be solved by recruiting new members from the fishing community. However, the cooperatives fear that new members would not honor the community’s traditions; hence, they are reluctant to recruit them.

In fact, some outsiders have shown their interests in starting demarcated fisheries. However, it is difficult for outsiders to get fishing rights because the Fisheries Act prioritizes fishermen’s cooperatives. The (self-proclaimed) reform-minded groups claim that fishermen’s cooperatives have become “old guards” to protect the interests assured by the Fisheries Act. However, these reform-minded groups do not suggest who should take the place of the fishermen’s cooperatives’ roles in avoiding and/or mediating conflicts among fishermen in limited coastal areas. Meanwhile, conservative groups point out that if the organization of fishermen’s cooperatives weakens further, the risk of disorder in allocation of marine resources among fishermen and the tragedy of the commons will increase. Conservative groups suggest that the national and prefectural governments should provide more support for the fishermen’s cooperatives to avoid and/or mediate conflict among fishermen in limited coastal areas[vii]. However, this argument does not detract from the bitter reality that the organizing ability of fishermen’s cooperatives is fading, as mentioned above.

  1. Inability to prevent overfishing in the emergence of new fishing technologies

In Kyoka Gyogyo, the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the prefectural governors set the capping on the number and tonnage of ships. This type of regulation is called “input control.” Conversely, major developed countries in Australasia, Europe, and North America employ “output control” type regulations in which the governments set a national-level total allowable catch (TAC) for each type of fish based on the scientific evidence. Subsequently, they allocate it to each fisherman (including a legal person) and/or ship as either individual quota (IQ) or individual transferable quota (ITQ).

The post-Pacific War period has witnessed emergence of various new fishing technologies that have enabled Japanese fishermen to catch more fish at the same input level. This has made input control regulations ineffective in preventing overfishing.

In 1997, the Japanese government introduced TAC system for eight types of fish: Alaska pollack, bluefin tuna, Japanese common squid, Japanese jack mackerel, Japanese sardines, mackerel, Pacific saury, and snow crabs. However, considering that other major advanced countries employ TAC for at least dozens of types of fishes, Japan’s attitude toward output control seems to be halfhearted. Experts assert that the Japanese government is unable to present sufficient scientific evidence supporting the setting up of TACs. Therefore, Japan’s TACs are extremely large to protect marine resources[viii]. To worsen the situation, penalties on fishermen whose total fish catch exceeds TAC are not sufficiently strong to enforce the TAC[ix].


The bill for the amendment of the Fisheries Act was passed through the Diet in December 2018. The amended Fisheries Act (New Fisheries Act) will become effective from December 2020. This amendment has the following three major points:

(i) Output control style regulations for marine resource protection

The New Fisheries Act stipulates that by setting TAC to the most of major types of fish, Japan’s marine resource regulation policy should be changed from input to output control style. However, considering that the Japanese government’s TACs are extremely large to protect marine resources, it is unsure whether the enactment of the New Fisheries Act will be effective in preventing overfishing.

(ii) Revision of the priority order for fishing rights

In the current Fisheries Act, the fishermen’s cooperatives are prioritized for fishing rights for Kukaku Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo. The New Fisheries Act does not have any priority order. This gives the impression that outsiders’ new entry to Kukaku Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo has become easier. However, the New Fisheries Act stipulates that the current holders’ fishing rights should be renewed if they are using the fishing rights appropriately. This means that the advantage held by fishermen’s cooperatives’ in receiving fishing rights for Kukaku Gyogyo-ken Gyogyo will be maintained even after the enactment of the New Fisheries Act.

(iii) Replacement of elected members by appointed members for SFAC

As mentioned above, in the current Fisheries Act, each SFAC consists of 15 members, and 9 of them are elected among fishermen. However, in the New Fisheries Act, the prefectural ordinance should determine 10–20 SFAC members. All the members should be appointed by the prefectural governor (the election system has been abolished). To consider outsiders’ voices into the prefectural governor’s decision-making, the New Fisheries Act requires some members from outside of the fishery industry[x]. This is an attempt to reduce the influence of fishermen’s cooperatives. Simultaneously, the New Fisheries Act stipulates that more than half of the SFAC members should be fishermen.

The market fundamentalists, who regard fishermen’s cooperatives as the old guard of anti-reformists, criticize that the New Fisheries Act is insufficient because outsiders cannot be a majority in the SFAC.

However, conservatives also criticize that those who are out of the fishery industry may lack sufficient knowledge on controlling marine resources and mediating conflicts between fishermen.


The New Fisheries Act is characterized by the following three points: (i) introduction of TAC regulations to major types of fisheries, (ii) revision of the priority order for fishing rights, and (iii) more flexibility on the members of SFAC (abolishment of election system for members of SFAC). As the Japanese government announces, this is the biggest fishery policy reform in the post-Pacific War period. However, this amendment is not sufficiently extensive to solve the three major problems in the Japanese fishery industry: (i) unpreparedness for declining leadership of fishermen’s cooperatives, (ii) reluctance toward outsiders’ entry in the fishery industry, and (iii) failure to protect marine resources in the emergence of new fishing technologies. This is just the beginning of reform in Japan’s fishery policy.


Godo, Yoshihisa, “Japan’s Fisheries Act,” FFTC Agricultural Policy Database (Food & Fertilizer Technology Center for the Asian and Pacific Region), 2020.

Kase, Kazutoshi, San Jikan de Wakaru Gyogyo-ken (A Three-hour Lecture on the Fishing Right System), Tsukuba Shobo, 2014.

Katsukawa, Toshio, Gyogyo toiu Nihon no Mondai (Problems in Japan’s Fishery Industry), NTT Shuppan, 2012.

Suzuki, Nobuhiro, Bokokuno Gyogyo-ken Kaiho (Dangerous Reform under the Name of Deregulation of Fishing License System), Tsukuba Shobo, 2017.

[i] At the prime minister’s general policy speech delivered at the opening of the 197th Diet session in October 2018, the then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described this amendment as the biggest fishery policy reform in the post-Pacific War period.

[ii] This paper provides a brief overview of the contents of the current Fisheries Act. For more details, see Godo (2020).

[iii] This section draws on Godo (2020).

[iv] The borderline between coastal water and offshore water was (and still is) drawn based on historical experience and legends. Usually, coastal water means where fishermen can easily have round-trips from shoreline.

[v] For example, see Kase (2014).

[vi] This section draws on Godo (2020).

[vii] For example, see Suzuki (2017).

[viii] For example, see Katsukawa (2012).

[ix] Those who violate the TAC regulation are lightly fined by the government. For more details, see Katsukawa (2012).

[x] The percentage of members from outside is determined by the prefectural governor (the percentage differs according to prefecture).