ABIKO, CHIBA PREF., Ogata Akita Pref. – In the suburbs of Tokyo, rice farmer Koichi Yuge is weighing how the government’s change of heart on controlling rice prices will impact his 300-year-old family business.
Yuge, who grows the Koshihikari brand of rice on 6 hectares of paddies in the city of Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, said he’s worried that the government’s recent decision to scrap traditional controls on rice production could cause supplies to surge amid slipping demand, lowering prices even further.
The 48-year-old Yuge is a typical rice grower in Japan: a small-scale, part-time farmer who often finds himself at the whim of changes in government policy.
“I don’t make money from farming, especially from rice,” Yuge, who lives with his wife, two school-age children and elderly parents, said. “I make a living from managing rental properties I own, and use that income to supplement my losses in farming.”
Yuge said the reason he maintains his loss-incurring farming business is because he feels indebted to his forebears, who passed the land down through the centuries. “It also provides a reason to live for my parents, who like tending the paddies,” he added.
For most Japanese farmers, rice farming is not nearly sufficient to earn a living. According to the agriculture ministry, the average arable land per farmer was only 1.8 hectares in 2006, compared with 16.9 hectares in Europe, 180.2 hectares in the United States and a staggering 3,424 hectares in Australia.
Among Japan’s 1.2 million rice farming families in 2010, full-time cultivators accounted for only 18.7 percent, while the remainder, such as Yuge, farm part time while holding a second job.
Yuge said things were rosier in the old days, when government-controlled rice prices kept going up every year. He pointed to a towel that he proudly hangs on the wall of a farmhouse behind his spacious residence, listing the year-by-year figure for the wholesale price of 60 kg of rice. The list goes all the way back to 1868.
It shows that the price of rice grew steadily over the years, peaking in 1984 and plateauing for a few years afterward.
By the time he inherited the family business in 1989, after graduating from college, prices had started falling despite the government-set “gentan” production quota, which reduces rice production by controlling farmland in use. The trend continues to this day, with domestic rice consumption waning as lifestyles become more Westernized.
“When my dad was in charge, it was a great time for rice farmers,” said Yuge, who also grows corn, carrots and leeks. “If the price falls further, whether through a relaxation of government restrictions on rice production or through Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I won’t have enough money to replace my old farming equipment.”
Despite his emotional attachment to farming, he said he doesn’t want his children to inherit the family tradition: “I tell my son to become a salaryman. It’s too tough to be a farmer.”
For Hajime Kobayashi, chairman of the agricultural cooperative of Ogata, Akita Prefecture, the political landscape looks a bit different. His village was developed by the central government with land reclaimed from Japan’s second-largest lake, Hachirogata, and it is one of the few places left in the country with large-scale paddies.
Ogata has 510 full-time farming families, and 80 percent of them have young successors ready to continue the family business. The average farmer has 17.2 hectares of paddies.
“This is a place where you need to bet your future on rice production,” Kobayashi said.
According to Kobayashi, agricultural cooperatives in other areas have maintained strong ties with ruling party politicians, meaning they could rely on the government to keep rice prices high and provide various subsidies to rice farmers.
But he argues the state pricing system should now be scrapped to force rice farmers to compete. That would benefit consumers and at the same time create new sales opportunities at home and overseas, and for processed food products made with rice flour, Kobayashi said.
But lowering prices means less income for farmers, particularly those who work full time, he said, so the government should provide direct subsidies to them to mitigate those losses and stabilize their income.
Toru Wakui, another large-scale farmer in Ogata, largely agreed with Kobayashi.
Government financial supports for rice farmers, if any, should be based on a national consensus that Japan needs to maintain its agriculture sector to be prepared for potential global food shortages — not on the vested interests of farmers and politicians, Wakui said.
“If the people agree that Japan doesn’t need (domestic) rice, you should just get rid of agriculture,” he said. “But if the people believe Japan needs agriculture, something like direct payment to farmers or a high rice price may be needed. It should be a decision by the people.”