RYUGASAKI, IBARAKI PREF. – Shuichi Yokota may be the future of Japan’s struggling rice industry.
The 38-year-old is about half the age of most growers and he relies on cutting-edge technology to cultivate vast paddies that eclipse the bulk of the country’s rice fields.
And Yokota does not fear foreign competition — a near taboo in a nation where rice is protected by subsidies and massive tariffs.
His farm in Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, has ballooned more than fivefold in 15 years into an operation spanning 112 hectares — almost 30 times the size of the tiny commercial rice fields commonly found in the area.
“This is simply the consequence of retiring farmers asking me to cultivate their rice paddies for them,” Yokota said.
“I am one of very few full-time farmers in this area, and the people who were retiring didn’t have anyone in the family to continue growing rice. But they don’t want to sell the land.”
While many of Japan’s farmers get by with centuries-old farming methods, Yokota and his colleagues share workload information and data such as temperature and water levels — monitored by sensors installed in each paddy — on their smartphones.
Yokota may be an accidental giant among rice growers, but some are betting that people like him are the best hope for fixing an inefficient system, with wider calls for a shake-up of the pampered agricultural sector.
Prices have tumbled as Japan’s rice consumption has halved in 50 years, and there are fears the sector is rotting from the inside despite — or some say, because of — decades-old protectionism.
Aging farmers are also facing fresh competition, with Aeon Co., the country’s largest supermarket chain, jumping into the rice business.
“The situation is extremely serious — this is the dawn of a very difficult time,” said Yoshito Yamada, a 66-year-old farmer in the city of Kitakata, Fukushima Prefecture.
Whether it is a bed for a piece of raw fish, an accompaniment to almost every meal, or the main ingredient in sake, rice is Japan’s unparalleled staple and enjoys a revered status.
Hundreds of years ago it was a currency, a symbol of wealth and power, and a ritual offering that still forms a key part of the Shinto religion, as well as sumo wrestling.
“Nothing gets done here without rice,” said Sachiko Goto, head of the Tokyo Sushi Academy, a training school for chefs.
That reverence has translated into strong protections for tiny plots tended by families who inherited land through generations — resulting in a hefty premium in stores.
The government has for decades stabilized prices by controlling supply and penalizing overproduction to protect farmers — a key voter base — from volatile world markets.
This policy, known as “gentan” and referring to small-scale cultivation, effectively made rice farming a part-time job left to older relatives while younger family members worked in other sectors.
But, as with much of the graying nation, many farmers are now retiring — the average is about 66 years old — with few people interested in replacing them. That has left some 400,000 hectares of farmland unused across the country, an area almost twice the size of Tokyo.
“What needs to be done is encourage older farmers to retire and then gather small pieces of land into one big lot for someone capable like Yokota,” said Masayoshi Honma, an economics professor at Tokyo University.
It is estimated that ditching rice tariffs — which can reach 778 percent — would see local prices fall by about ¥341 per kilogram, according to the agriculture ministry.
An average 5-kg bag in Tokyo costs from ¥1,500 to ¥2,000, up to three times the price of a comparable bag in Sydney, Bangkok or Beijing.
Despite resistance to change by the powerful agricultural lobby, some older rice farmers such as Yamada blame the subsidy system for a now stagnant sector.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last year he would end production quotas from 2018 and abolish some cash handouts to rice farmers while expanding other payments — leading to claims the policy was toothless.
Despite his plan to shake up the economy, Abe has avoided taking an ax to rice tariffs that have long been seen as untouchable.
The levies have kept imports of foreign rice to a trickle — 77 tons last year against domestic production of 8 million tons — and they remain a key stumbling block in Japan’s trade talks, including the negotiations for the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade bloc.
Despite fears the industry would crumble if it had to compete globally, Yokota insists competition could be an opportunity to tap new markets.
“If our supply exceeds domestic consumption, then we will bring it overseas — the TPP wouldn’t be a threat in that sense,” he said.