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And the government says: Let them eat rice

by Philip Brasor

When I tuned in to NHK’s “Nihon Kore Kara (Japan From Now)” on Oct. 20 to watch a live citizens’ debate about Japan’s food-security crisis, I felt the issue was a no-brainer. Who could argue against the importance of food security, meaning the self-sufficiency of a country to feed itself? And given the fact that Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is a dangerously low 39 percent right now, I assumed that the farmers of Japan should receive all the support they asked for.

But once the debate got under way I became confused. As it stands, rice, which the program identified as “our staple food,” is the only agricultural product that is still widely protected. In the past few decades, the Japanese government has dismantled tariffs and other protections for food in order to support its industrial base, which is dependent on exports.

The program mentioned a possible Free Trade Agreement with Australia, under which Japanese farmers would lose an estimated ¥800 billion a year, 75 percent of it in the form of rice. However, the country’s GDP would rise by ¥650 billion because of the steel and automobiles it would sell to Australia in exchange.

Voting from home, viewers didn’t seem to think it was a fair trade. To the question, “Should Japan open its markets to foreign foods?” five times as many viewers said “no” as “yes.” And the number who said, “Only the rice market shouldn’t be opened” was three times the number who said “yes.”

One of the experts invited to the show, essayist Toyoo Tamamura, who grows his own food and makes his own wine, made an interesting point about these results. If the vast majority of the Japanese population supports protecting Japanese agriculture, which surveys say they do, then why is Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate only 39 percent?

Though they paid lip service to the farmers’ hard work, some of the studio participants wondered out loud if there wasn’t something stone-headed about government support for rice. University of Tokyo Professor Masayoshi Honma said that the main reason the government promotes rice consumption right now is that rice is the only crop that holds up the self-sufficiency rate, as low as it is.

In response, the farmers’ position in advocating the continuation of government protection through tariffs and subsidies became increasingly defensive. They said that if the Japanese rice market collapsed, the rural environment would deteriorate, small communities would disappear, and Japan’s connection with its agrarian past would cease to exist. While these developments would certainly be dire, they have little to do with the problem’s source, which is that Japanese people don’t want to eat as much rice any more.

The government’s rice protection policy was formulated during World War II, when the citizenry was starving. After the war, production increased and rice was pretty much all there was. The quality wasn’t very good, but everybody ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Consumption peaked in 1963, when the average Japanese person ate five bowls a day. That statistic decreased to 3 1/2 bowls by 1978 and now stands at 2 1/2.

There’s a simple reason for this: more choice. Japan’s standard of living is among the highest in the world. Japanese people can eat anything they want, and they famously do. There is no reason to eat as much rice as they once did, or any at all, for that matter; but as the arguments on the NHK program showed, rice has a powerful hold on the Japanese imagination.

Halfway through the three-hour marathon, the moderator put this question to the studio participants and the viewers: Should Japanese people eat more rice? Again, the voters at home overwhelmingly sided with the farmers: yes, they should. But a number of people in the studio took issue with the question itself.

“Why can’t I eat anything I want?” asked one student, even though he said he ate more rice than the national average. And Honma seemed offended. “That question is pointless,” he said. Whether or not Japanese people “should” eat rice was irrelevant to the debate, since you couldn’t do anything about people’s preferences in a free society.

Honma’s objection did nothing to stem the flow of irrelevant conclusions and comments. One housewife said that people didn’t eat rice anymore because they weren’t properly raised. A rural merchant said that rice had to be protected because the rituals associated with the grain were central to Japanese culture. One farmer made the claim that only Japanese rice farmers understand the Japanese palate.

The farmers and their supporters say that the government should not only continue subsidizing the cultivation of rice, but that it should somehow compel people to eat more of it in order to justify the subsidies.

There are good reasons to encourage farmers to keep on farming, but why only rice? Warehouses are bursting with the stuff, and since government controls were relaxed more than a decade ago the price has dropped considerably (though it’s still above the world average), thus making it more difficult for rice farmers to break even. The government has tried to help them by keeping the price high — last week they promised to buy 340,000 surplus tons for ¥80 billion — but the truth is there’s just not enough demand any more.

Though the debate began with economics, it somehow got twisted into a discussion about the loss of traditional values, as if not eating rice were directly related to increases in crime and divorce.

If I learned anything from the program it was that postwar agricultural policies created an environment that gave rice farmers little incentive to change to other crops. It’s difficult to see how the food-security problem for an advanced country such as Japan can be addressed by relying on a single product, but that seems to be the official solution: Let them eat rice.