National | 3/11: Rebuilding Tohoku

In shadow of nuclear disaster, Fukushima's rice farmers look to rebuild their market

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

For 36-year-old rice farmer Emi Kato, the first few years after the 2011 core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant were grueling.

Due to fears of radioactive contamination, several customers terminated their contracts for rice she and her husband, Koji, 38, had harvested far inland in the city of Fukushima.

She also saw online comments bashing local farmers despite the fact that no radioactive material was ever detected in their products.

But over time, the situation gradually improved.

The couple’s rice has been getting a more positive reception from consumers these days. It proved popular at a food event earlier this year in Tokyo, where they noticed many people were choosing to buy rice grown in Fukushima over brands from other regions.

“We were in total despair after the nuclear crisis. I struggled about whether producing rice was the right thing to do,” said Kato, who has four children.

But looking at how things have changed, Kato said she’s glad she persevered.

“I’m glad that we’ve kept going,” she said. “The support we’ve received from many encouraged us to try our best.”

Indeed, the results of an online survey released Thursday by the Consumer Affairs Agency found changing attitudes toward Fukushima food.

According to the approximately 5,000 respondents, the ratio of consumers hesitant to buy Fukushima produce because of radiation concerns fell to a record low 12.7 percent in February, compared with 19.4 percent the same month in 2013, when the survey began.

The unprecedented blanket screenings conducted to detect radiation in the nation’s main staple guaranteed the safety of Fukushima rice. Since 2015, none of the prefecture’s rice was found to contain cesium beyond the state limit for food of 100 becquerels per kilogram. And in last year’s harvest, no radioactive material was detected in 99.99 percent of the total, according to the prefectural government.

Still, Fukushima faces a long journey to rebuild its reputation as a major rice producer despite the gradual return of consumer confidence and the official data verifying safety.

Fukushima was the fourth-largest rice producer in Japan before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. It has since fallen to seventh place.

Seven years on, prices remain below pre-disaster levels, and the prefecture’s farmers and officials have a hard time finding retailers willing to sell rice with a “Made in Fukushima” label.

According to the prefectural government, a brand formerly considered high-end rice is now being sold as a cheaper brand for commercial use in restaurants and convenience stores.

And a new variety called Ten no Tsubu that was being fostered as a major Fukushima product is being marketed mostly for commercial use, officials said. A few of the farmers even sell it as animal feed because it earns government subsidies.

“It’s a pity, really,” said Makoto Sato, the director of the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center where Ten no Tsubu was born after 15 years of research.

Koshi Fujita, an eighth-generation rice farmer in Koriyama, said the problem that local rice farmers are facing is a change in market structure.

When distribution of Fukushima rice ground to a halt after the March 2011 disasters, wholesalers and retailers looked for other rice to fill their shelves, Fujita said. That means shelves once reserved for Fukushima’s products now contain items from other prefectures. That won’t be easy to change because wholesalers and retailers have already established business ties with new farmers, he said.

“The disasters damaged the brand we established and destroyed the network we built,” Fujita said. “What we need to do now is pour our efforts in rebuilding these things.”

According to the prefecture’s data from 2010, the price for 60 kg of Fukushima rice was about ¥200 cheaper than the national average back then. The gap widened to about ¥770 in 2011 and ¥600 in 2012. But when supply finally exceeded demand in 2014, the price sank to ¥10,718 — more than ¥1,200 below the national average of ¥11,967.

After balance was restored, the price gap shrank to ¥516 in 2016, but that is still more than double the gap in 2010.

“Fukushima rice is often placed at the end of the line (during market auctions),” said Shiro Kawasaki, a senior official at the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) Fukushima Chuokai, which controls about 45 percent of the rice procurement and distribution channels in the prefecture. “Such a position in the line doesn’t have much effect on the market price as long as demand exceeds supply. But when supply exceeds demand like we saw in 2014, it has a huge effect.”

To reverse the drop, Fukushima officials have paid visits to shops in the Kanto region, where about 60 percent of its rice ends up, asking them to put it on sale. But challenges abound.

Hideaki Suzuki, chief of the agricultural product distribution section at the Fukushima Prefectural Government, said some shops in Tokyo were selling Fukushima rice unlabeled. Suzuki said one shop owner told him that he hides the name of the prefecture because there are still people who criticize him for selling Fukushima products.

To raise the value of its rice — which accounted for 33 percent of Fukushima’s gross agricultural output in 2016 — more brands must be treated as top quality, Suzuki said.

“It’s good that there is constant demand for Fukushima rice for commercial use,” he said. “But when we consider elevating its market value, it is crucial for us to create a high-class rice brand.”

Efforts are underway to develop another new variety to break into the high-end market, but it will take at least a decade or so before it’s ready, he said.

Fujita, the rice farmer in Koriyama, said even though there are still people who hesitate to buy Fukushima products, he does not feel resentful.

“I believe eating should be an act of joy. And it’s not right to force someone to eat something when they have anxiety,” Fujita said. “What I hope is for people to purchase and eat Fukushima produce simply because it tastes good, not because they want to support Fukushima farmers.”

This is the last installment in a series that looked at how the Tohoku region is attempting to rebuild itself seven years after the March 11, 2011, disasters.

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