Ben Hills

Clouds swallow the harvest moon as the black rain thrashes the sodden paddy-fields of Niigata, Japan’s premier rice-growing district. There will be no tsukimizake tonight, no moon-viewing sake- drinking celebration for Katsuichi Yamaga, a third-generation rice-farmer. “If it doesn’t let up soon, we will lose the rest of our crop,” he says. 

Mr Yamaga, and several hundred thousand other farmers, are now trying to salvage the matted, mouldy remains of the worst rice harvest since the war, if not the worst in history.

Drenched with more than a metre of summer rain, blighted by subnormal temperatures – snow began falling on Mount Fuji before summer officially ended- and battered by a near-record 19 typhoons, one quarter of the nation’s crop, two million tonnes of rice, has already been written off.

In the rich ricelands of Tohoku and Hokkaido in northern Japan, where Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa plodded around in gumboots last weekend wearing his concerned look, up to half the crop has been wiped out. There has been panic buying and hoarding; rice shipments have been hijacked; and there are bare shelves in some shops.

Even here in Niigata, which has fared better than most regions, one growers’ co-operative pleaded with me: “Please don’t come here – the farmers don’t even have enough rice to feed their families.”

The tabloids have even been running retrospectives on the great Tenmai famine of the 1780s, reprinting extracts from the diary of Sugae Masumi who recorded hordes of starving refugees reduced to cannibalism and dying by the roadsides in their hundreds of thousands.

It won’t, of course, come to this in 1993. The Government has already agreed to import 200,000 tonnes of rice over the next two months – emergency supplies to ensure no shortage of the traditional mochi rice-cakes over the festive season. Up to two million tonnes more will follow.

But the big question facing Mr Hosokawa’s shaky new coalition is not how to deal with the immediate emergency, but whether to make these imports permanent policy; whether to abandon Japan’s 50-year-old policy of self-sufficiency in the country’s food staple, open the market, and save the GATT trade talks. That question is also much on the mind of Mr Yamaga.

The Kawanishi district of Niigata prefecture is the Burgundy of rice farming in Japan, the premier cru of the crop. Round here, they grow the famed, fragrant, Koshihikari strain of rice from which the annual offering for the Emperor, blessed by white-robed Shinto priests, is harvested. Last year it came from Mr Yamaga’s own farm.

Rice has been grown hereabouts for 3,000 years or more, a gift, so mythology has it, from the sun goddess, Amaterasu. It was Japonica (the family of short-grained rice that includes Koshihikari) that is referred to in Chinese poetry from 800 years before Christ, and Japonica that Marco Polo took home from his legendary travels.

Kawanishi is in the high country of central Honshu, framed by pine-clad alps, with paddies irrigated by the swift-flowing Shinano River, and hamlets of timber houses built three storeys tall so that in winter something will be left sticking out of the snow – the heaviest fall in recent times topped seven metres. “We hibernate in winter,” says Mr Yamaga.

His own farm is one of the largest in the district – 40 hectares. But it is a sort of co-operative, owned by no fewer than 62 families – all of them part-timers, like Mr Yamaga himself, who says he makes his real money from nameko mushrooms which he grows in sheds at the back of his house.

This is the real problem with rice-farming in Japan – it is small-scale, inefficient and even in a good year has to be massively subsidised to survive. It costs Japanese taxpayers about $20 billion a year in subsidies, and tens of billions more in the supermarket, where a 1 kg packet of Mr Yamaga’s rice costs $9.55, seven or eight times more than consumers pay in any other rice-growing country in the world.

The average size of the million rice farms in Japan is only a smidgin over one hectare – compared with 100 hectares in the United States. In mountain glades, there are fields barely bigger than bed-sheets, where old folk with sickles plant and harvest their crop by hand. In the shadow of the factories of the world’s richest high-tech society, farming methods are more appropriate to the boondocks of Burma.

Yoko Nakamura, a cheerful, weatherbeaten 56-year-old, is your rice farmer from central casting. She lives in a nearby picture-postcard village called Iwase, once a thriving community of 70 or 80 families, now slowly declining, with thatched-roof cottages standing empty and rotting, the school closed, the people growing old.

The house has been standing for 160 years and now supports what may be the last generation of Nakamuras to live here: – Mrs Nakamura’s in-laws (aged 89 and 86, they still make their own buckwheat noodles and help out with the haymaking); her daughter Chieko, who works for the local agricultural cooperative; and her husband, a tanshin funin (“posted away”) who lives most of the year in Kinugawa where he works as a chef, coming home only at planting and harvest time.

To support the household – apart from Mr Nakamura’s wages – there is just one hectare of mountain paddies, where they grow their pumpkins, collect wild walnuts, and harvest rice – grain for the table, and stalks for tatami matting.

Mrs Nakamura says her own crop has been quite good, in spite of the rain -but she feels “very insecure” about the future.

“The Government keeps changing its policy – first they want us to grow less rice; now we have a shortage and we have to import it,” she says. “If this continues, it will mean the end of communities like this.”

That argument has been holy writ for Japan’s governments – and oppositions- for half a century. Every party, even the Communist, opposes rice imports and regularly supports motions in the Diet (Parliament) reaffirming the 1942 Staple Food Control Act, which was supposed to ensure self-sufficiency.

It never did, of course – Japan is the world’s biggest food- importer, bringing in more than half what it eats. With only 14 per cent of its mountainous land arable, it could probably feed a population of no more than 70 million – 55 million fewer than it actually has.

Rice is, anyway, no longer such a staple – consumption has halved in the past three decades and it makes up less than a quarter of the calorie intake of the average Japanese. The 1,000th Japanese McDonald’s recently opened in the city of Nagoya.

What the legislation did ensure, however, was a Soviet-style system under which the Government – more accurately, the mandarins of MAFF, the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – controls who grows rice, what they grow and where, who they sell it to, and for what price. “It’s like working for a collective farm,” grumbles one farmer.

Built on the farmers’ backs is an enormous bureaucracy employing about 300,000 people – more than there are full-time rice farmers – the nokyos, agricultural co-operatives, which monopolise distribution through a labyrinthine system under which the price of rice almost doubles between field and table.

These co-ops – conglomerates which serve as banks, travel and insurance agents, machinery dealers and much more – occupy the grandest buildings in small country towns like Kawanishi, and control every aspect of rural life, particularly at election time.

Because of Japan’s grotesquely gerrymandered electoral system – one country vote is worth up to three in the city – and the power of the nokyos in delivering the votes and the cash, traditionally to the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, only the foolhardy have been game to challenge the vested interests of this agriculture lobby.

Two thirds of the LDP MPs in the last parliament were members of the norin giin, the “agriculture tribe” which controlled farm policy. When the Government caved in to foreign pressure and allowed dairy and citrus imports five years ago, the nokyos took their revenge – virtually every LDP member of the norin giin in the tangerine-growing region of Ehime and the dairy farm belt of Kyushu was thrown out.

But that, even farmers like Mr Yamaga acknowledge, may be changing. Mr Hosokawa has staked his premiership on reforming this corrupt electoral system and, in particular, curbing the power of the rural vote. Electorates in Niigata Prefecture, the traditional stomping ground of such powerbrokers as Kakuei Tanaka, may lose as many as half their MPs.

The nokyos still have a smart, well-lubricated machine at their disposal, which they claim can influence as many as 10 million rural voters. They have demonstrated in Brussels against demands by GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that the country open its rice market; and just last week they were marching through the parliamentary precinct in Tokyo demanding(successfully) compensation for their crop losses and a halt in the Government’s scheme for reducing and consolidating rice smallholdings.

“These imports must only be temporary, because we must be able to feed our own citizens,” says Toichi Hoshina, an official at the nokyo in Kawanishi. “It cannot be made a permanent thing … it would destroy the farmers, and it would destroy the countryside.”

But, although Mr Hosokawa was this week still reading from the scriptures of his MAFF bureaucrats, many within the Government believe that 1993, the year that summer never came, may have delivered him the weapon he needs to reform the world’s most inefficient agricultural system.

In spite of the barrage of propaganda from the countryside (particularly claims that chemicals in imported Australian rice will poison people) public opinion is slowly turning around – 42 per cent questioned in a recent Asahi newspaper poll favoured imports; 47 per cent opposed.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 9 October 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 28
Word count: 1783
1. Katsuichi Yamaga … “If it doesn’t let up soon, we will lose the rest of our crop”
2. Farmers in Niigata prefecture try to salvage what they can of the rice harvest