The future of rice farming in Japan


Special To The Japan Times

Rice has been at the center of Japan’s economy and culture for centuries. But changes are afoot. There is growing concern among Japanese farmers that the country’s rice-producing capabilities are diminishing in the face of international trade pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, all local agriculture is in the spotlight as pressure mounts to increase local imports of overseas produce.

Setsuko Yasuda has been following this situation closely. She heads the Japan Organic Agriculture Association and the Vision 21 information center, which monitors the government’s policies on agriculture and food safety, among other things. In a recent interview she addressed these concerns and explained how rice consumption and production in Japan is changing.

What do you think about the current state of rice farming in Japan?

The government is not doing enough to protect national rice production. This is very troubling because rice has not only been our staple diet, it has been at the heart of Japanese life and culture. Collaboration and sharing, for example, are very important in Japanese society, and the origin of this can be found in the way rice is produced on a communal level. Also, up to the second half of the 19th century, economic wealth was calculated in rice. In other words, Japan’s society, culture and economy have been built around rice. If we throw away all the hard work our ancestors have done we are going to destroy both the environment and our food culture. That’s why I think the government’s current agricultural policy is a recipe for disaster.

How is the government’s attitude toward farmers changing?

Until 1995 the government used to buy all the rice produced in Japan before selling it at a relatively high price (agreed upon with the agricultural cooperatives) in order to sustain the farmers. At the same time, rice imports were banned.

Since the end of the 1980s, the United States pressured the (Japanese) government to lift the ban on importing foreign rice, and now the same thing is being debated in connection with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

What do you find the most troubling about the recent trade developments?

The way the United States is trying to force Japan to accept rice imports just because the U.S. has a surplus of rice — it has nothing to do with Japan’s food needs. In 1960, the average annual consumption (of rice) was 118 kilograms per person. Now it’s 61 kilograms — we consume about half the rice we used to eat 50 years ago.

Why isn’t rice as popular as it used to be?

After World War II, Japan imported many new ideas from America. One of them was that a bread-based diet was better for our health. At that time, it was advertised widely that eating rice made you stupid (laughs). So for many years the Japanese Government provided only bread for school lunches. In Japanese homes, many people now eat bread or pasta at least once a day and we eat a lot of meat. And most meat and wheat — together with other products such as soy beans and corn — are imported mainly from the U.S. As a result, Japan’s food self-sufficiency has gone down from 80 percent in 1960 to only 39 percent in 2006.

How does the TPP threaten Japanese agriculture and rice production in particular?

It would have a disastrous effect, as 90 percent of (Japan’s) national rice production would be wiped away by a total liberalization of the rice trade. Another thing that worries me are the big American biotechnology companies, such as Monsanto. To prevent the reconsolidation of farmland after the war, the government decided that only the people who did actual farming — as in small-scale farmers — could own land. That prevented joint-stock companies from gaining control of the land and was a good thing because big companies only think about the bottom line — when times are bad they can easily switch to more lucrative productions. I worry that, in the not-so-distant future, big businesses will gradually take control of Japanese agriculture, only pursuing their own interests at the expense of local people.

Considering the depopulation of rural areas, the old age of farmers and increasing production costs, would it be better to import cheap rice from other countries?

Maybe for a tiny country like Singapore it makes sense, but Japan still has more than 100 million people. Is it really safe to trust international free trade when our food self-sufficiency is at risk?

What effect do agrochemicals have on rice grown in Japan?

This is a sore point because Japan is the world’s No. 1 country in terms of chemicals used in agriculture. According to a 2004 OECD survey, Japanese farmers use almost 16 kg of chemicals per hectare while U.S. farmers only use 2 kg. However, if we analyze the final product — rice itself — we find more traces of chemicals in American rice than in Japanese rice. The reason is that the 1995 Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement (SPS) on food safety allows each member country to set its own safety standards and lets American farmers use more pesticides and insecticides after harvesting the rice. These chemicals stick to the grains and don’t go away.

Does that mean we shouldn’t worry too much about chemicals in Japanese rice?

Well, actually there’s a big problem right now with neonicotinoids, a new class of neuro-active insecticides that have been linked to the widespread disappearance of bees. In 2013, the European Union and a few non-EU countries restricted the use of certain neonicotinoids. In Japan, where these insecticides are widely used against shield bugs, the government is doing nothing. The agrochemical lobby is very influential here.

The number of Japanese farm households has declined in recent decades. How could the government create interest in agriculture among young people?

The main problem are all those complicated laws and regulations that often discourage people from even trying out this kind of business. Recently, for example, there’s a growing demand for organically farmed produce, but just to reconvert the land to the organic method takes about three years. Under these circumstances the government should support young enterprising farmers through long-term rental contracts and some sort of financial aid. These people need to know they are not being left alone in their battle to preserve our agricultural heritage.

  • Firas Kraïem

    Rice is probably the blandest, dullest food I can think of, especially since it is most often eaten plain. I don’t think you need look further for the reason why people are eating less of it.

    • Iris

      The fact that it’s bland is exactly why it goes so well with the other Japanese foods that tend to be rather salty. If i had to make a request for a “last meal,” it’d include a bowl of white rice with salted fish or maybe some Japanese pickled white cabbage (白菜) – something salty anyway. To my palate, the balance is perfect.

      The “taste” of white rice is borne out more by its texture rather than flavor i think (though i know people with very subtle palates who really pick up on the differences between diff kinds of white rice, much better than i can). I’m a huge bread fan myself, but rice definitely has its place on my list of appetizing staples.

    • Hollis Butts

      I’ve eaten rice from all over the world. My favorites are from Thailand and N. India. Japanese rice has to be sticky so that it holds together for sushi and onigiri and as a result is unfortunately gluey. On its own, not that tasty.

  • koedo

    Ms. Yasuda, cars are an integral part of American history, society and culture. Up until the second part of the 20th century, most cars in the US were produced in the US by American workers. Since the Japanese pressured the United States to accept Japanese autos (Lexus, Honda, Toyota,, Suzuki, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Infinity and Mazda), the volume of cars made by American companies has fallen dramatically. As a result, thousands of US auto jobs have been lost and it has impacted the nation economically.

    So, Ms Yasuda, it can be said that the US consumer is vitally important to the Japanese economy. Do you see where I’m going with this?

    • godzilla69

      So you’re arguing that there’s an equivalency between cars and food, for purposes of economic liberalization, and that a U.S. push for more Japanese food dependency on the U.S. is a legitimate “tit-for-tat” for allowing Japanese auto manufacturers access to the American car market? Just to clarify.

      • koedo

        No, that’s to what I was saying. You missed the point completely.

  • Jeffrey

    An otherwise good interview spoiled by the fact that neither the interviewer nor Ms. Yasuda brought up the lingering inefficiencies in Japanese agriculture. The fields behind Ms Yasuda being a prime example. I count at least four separate paddies there and there should be one.

    With fewer farmers consolidation of separate landholdings and greater mechanization are two obvious solutions to part of the problem and I’ve never seen anyone propose this. It won’t work everywhere, but it must be done where it can be.

    Japan could attain a higher level of food self-sufficiency than it has today, but it won’t unless it rationalizes it’s farmland.

    • godzilla69

      My impression was that the japonica varieties favored by Japanese consumers almost require small-paddy production because they require a precise degree of irrigation control not practicable in larger paddies. I’m not a farmer and no expert on the subject, though; perhaps you can correct my understanding. What other rationales might explain the persistence of the technique, if it is only inefficient and has no bearing on the quality of the product? Sheer stubbornness and clinging to tradition (certainly not unheard of in Japan)? Influence of intrusive government policy?

      • Jeffrey

        Foreign skis won’t work on Japanese snow and Japanese intestines can’t digest foreign beef. The “Japanese” rice produced and consumed in the U.S. is medium grain Japonica, the same as is consumed in Japan.

        The resistance to modernizing Japanese agriculture where it can be is in part a legacy of bad LDP agricultural policy and the fact that most Japanese farmers are too old, set in their ways and unwilling to change.

        In the face of the somewhat one-sided TPP, if Japan wants to retain a higher degree of food self-sufficiency, the central government is going to have to splash cash around to buyout farmers in order to consolidate and create larger holdings. However, as they were cowed for twenty years by a bunch of farmers who prevented Narita from opening on time and then expanding, it’s one area where the otherwise deaf to the citizenry central government is weak.

    • KenjiAd

      I grew up as a farm boy.

      A bigger paddy would be more convenient for equipment, but you can’t make it too big, because a wind would then make the water level at the paddy too uneven, one side deeper than the other.

      So the only way to make it big is to make it into a long rectangular rather than a big square, with the long side perpendicular to the usual direction of winds. That’s what you see in the picture. That looks like a standard 10-a paddy (10 x 100 meters).

      On a flat surface, which is rare in Japan, some farmers make 30-a paddy or even bigger.


    JAPAN can import Indian farmers to augment the supply of rice. Indian farmers are the best in the world. Japan rural side is depopulated and nobody stays.

  • jcbinok

    Maybe I’m being oversensitive, but Ms. Yasuda pretty much lays every problem with Japan’s food production at the feet of America. Scapegoat much? Some of the claims seem a bit specious: (1) Most meat, wheat, beans and corn are imported from America? Really? I rarely see USA meat in Japan’s stores. It’s usually from Australia or NZ. Soybeans are Canadian. Wheat might be from the US, but all the corn I see in local stores is Japanese-grown. And the sugar in soft drinks is from grapes, not corn syrup, right? (2) “Rice makes you stupid,” was a claim of the post-WWII occupation? If that’s true (I have my doubts), it hardly seems relevant in 2016. (3) Japan’s use of pesticides is not so bad, America’s use of pesticides is really bad…OK. (4) Prior to 1995, Japan kept all foreign rice out of their markets and controlled the price (i.e., regulation), but nowadays the reason people don’t want to farm is because of regulations and laws?

    If Japan doesn’t want to sign onto TPP, then don’t. Simple as that. But, please don’t blame America for every last thing.

    • soudeska

      You must be thinking of ブドウ糖, which actually just means glucose and can be from any source, not just grapes.

      • jcbinok

        Thanks for the clarification.

    • KenjiAd

      I’m pretty sure that vast majority of corn imports in Japan are for feeding live-stocks, because that’s how corns are mostly used in agriculture.

  • sussexsimon

    Rice is the foundation to any meal, its softness, texture and taste, often defined by the flavours and juices of its accompaniments, should provide the main part of any main course. It roles in Japanese culture and the shape of its landscape are understandably a reason rice farmers should be protected.

    • Mark Garrett

      Then I would suggest that the Japanese people return to buying and eating more rice.

  • Hollis Butts

    An economist would say that the only reason to grow rice in Japan is cultural concerns, well-founded or not. Japanese rice is threatened by foreign rice imports because modern Japan is very inefficient at producing rice. Of course the consumer pays way too much for rice but there is another big loss: When an sector of the economy is inefficient (in this case rice production), the labor used in that sector should be shifted to more productive parts of the economy and in this way the overall economy is improved, made more productive. In a free market, this happens by imports destroying inefficient sectors, thus forcing the workers in inefficient sectors to shift to productive sectors. In Japan this is prevented by government. It lowers the overall productivity of Japan and makes the Japanese poorer.

    • Alucard

      That is true, but economic theories don’t take into account self-sufficiency and strategic effects, such as in this case the availability of rice in case of crisis.

  • tr1ple

    Japanese rice taste great in comparison with US Rice. Rice in the US is heavily subsidised. They even ruined the market of haiti by forcing them to buy US rice. I guess they can make a deal by allowing not subsidised rice into the market and Japan on the other hand open its market for that specific rice. (No rice would be exported)

  • DutchCynic

    Same old arguments Japanese petty farming interests (such as the lady above) have repeated for years. Government protection have basically destroyed the agricultural sector in Japan. Propped up pricing and subsidies have resulted in low productivity and little to no innovation. Result is an overregulated, ossified sector, with a rapidly aging farming population (Many of them doing it part-time actually) Younger generations have little interesting in continuing/entering the farming business as there is no room to grow or for entrepreneurship.
    Although I am not really a fan of Abe’s policies in general, his efforts to shake up the sector by taking on JA Zenchu etc. are worth supporting.

  • Jeffrey

    That has nothing to do with why rural rice acreage remains so chopped up. It’s a matter of habit and antiquated farming practices reflecting a time when rice HAD to be planted and harvested by hand.

  • KenjiAd

    These paddies look like 30-a (or perhaps 50-a) paddies. As I said, larger paddies like these do exist, but never anything approaching the size of, say, corn field which could be as big as acres.

    The reason for the limitation fo rice paddies is just as I described: wind effect. The rice being semi-aquatic plant, water level of the growing field must be even, or the plant will not grow evenly.

    That’s all. Have a great day.

    • Jeffrey

      As I said, there are larger paddies in the U.S. and as the wind doesn’t blow constantly anywhere (other than Ellensburg), this is just another “made in Japan” non-issue.