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Renegade Farmers : Japan Rice System Faces a Challenge

Times Staff Writer

When the history of the next rice revolution in Japan is written, it may be recorded that the first shots were fired in this place.

“What’s wrong with raising rice where the land is most suitable for it?” asked Toshiko Shikama, looking out over 27,000 acres of paddy field awaiting the spring planting under a cover of snow, the largest such expanse in Japan.

The young rice farmer’s remark may not have the ring of a clarion call, but it is stirring emotions in this distant northern corner of Honshu, and around Japan.

Because of his insistence on planting all of his alloted 37 acres of paddy with rice, Shikama and the members of 219 farming families like his have been ostracized by the rest of this model cooperative farm, where they have lived for 20 years.

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Denied Community Loans

They have been denied community loans for machinery and supplies and forced to build their own storage and milling facilities.

“People think they are morally bad farmers,” said village Mayor Seiki Miyata, who shares that view.

The reason has much to do with Japan’s deeply cherished image of the rice village as a model of spiritual communality, where decisions made for personal gain but to the village’s disadvantage are considered reprehensible.

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It has even more to do with Japan’s fragile food control system, established in 1932 to protect the nation’s hopelessly inefficient small farms from extinction.

Today, the system costs Japanese taxpayers $6 billion in price supports for rice farmers alone--not to mention the expense to consumers forced to pay 5 to 10 times the world market price of rice at retail.

Painful Political Problems

In many ways, the food control system makes no economic sense. It discourages farm innovation and consolidation of small plots. It keeps consumer prices high and drains government revenues. Increasingly, Japan’s refusal to open its markets to wider imports of rice, as well as beef and citrus fruits and a number of other agricultural commodities, is causing painful political problems internationally. (Wrangling has already begun over a U.S.-Japan trade agreement on beef and citrus that expires next month.)

But as the events unfolding at Ogata-Mura suggest, many in Japan, including agricultural bureaucrats, farmers, and even some consumers, think the system is a small price to pay for a feeling of confidence that, come what may and whatever the cost, Japan will always be able to produce enough rice to feed itself.

Ogata-Mura’s basic problem is that it is too successful. Opened in 1965 on 27,000 acres of sludgy clay reclaimed from the nation’s second-largest lake, the community was settled by about 500 farm families hand-picked from all over Japan and allotted paddies more than 10 times larger than the national average. The idea was to show that by farming on a large scale, Japan could cut costs enough to make its agriculture world-competitive.

In that sense, Ogata-Mura’s planners got what they wanted. The village’s rice production and cost per acre come closer than anywhere else in the country to that of farmland in the United States.

But the agricultural triumph has been a social and political fiasco. For along with the nation’s best rice yield has come an ugly fight over how much rice to plant and how much to charge for it.

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Disregarding Orders

Having tasted the wealth that comes from efficient farming, many families here have simply begun to disregard government orders, designed to avert a rice glut, to take as much as 30% of their land out of rice production. What the government refuses to buy, they sell illegally on the black market.

They make more money from black market sales because in circumventing government-approved distribution channels, they pay fewer middlemen. So now 220 of Ogata-Mura’s 589 households are violating the quotas, and more are likely to join them during this year’s planting season.

In the United States, this might be viewed as a gratifying illustration of free-market mechanics. But the image of hundreds of farmers getting rich from the black market, and violating a community consensus to boot, has been deeply disturbing to the Japanese agricultural community.

“Other farmers in this district especially resent seeing those people getting rich by violating the law,” said Toshimi Fukushima, the local government official responsible for enforcing the quotas. “The small-scale farmers around here have a harder time making ends meet, and yet they’re cooperating. We can’t change the rules just for big farmers.”

Just Seeking Own Profit

“These are people who are only seeking their own profit,” said Mayor Miyata. “We think they should all cooperate for the greater good of the village.”

Especially infuriating to the maverick farmers’ critics is that the traditional disciplinary mechanisms of farm-village life--threats of ostracism and so on--do not function in such an artificially settled and cosmopolitan community as Ogata-Mura.

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“This is like a big city, not a traditional farming village,” said the mayor disapprovingly of his community of 3,381. “People moved here from all over Japan.”

When Miyata has patronage jobs or machinery loans to parcel out, they go to cooperating farmers. But even he acknowledges that--Ogata-Mura not being a conventional village--community pressure does not work.

Even Litigation

The two sides have even fought each other with that most un-Japanese tool of dispute-settlement--litigation. (The results, however, have been typically Japanese: Indefinite interment in the local prefectural, or state, court. One case against a non-complying farmer has been mired in the courthouse without any sign of resolution for more than 10 years.)

“Our differences aren’t over the goals--everybody here wants to grow more and better rice,” said Tomomi Soito, a non-cooperating farmer who moved to Ogata-Mura as a fifth-grader with his family 20 years ago. “We just disagree on the methods.”

But the disagreement has destroyed Ogata-Mura’s reputation.

“My friends do not look upon Ogata-Mura as a model farm anymore,” said Shigeru Takano, a cooperating farmer and the head of one group testing out new crops on village land ordered taken out of rice production.

To local government officials, neighboring farmers, and even some Tokyo bureaucrats, the purely agricultural gains in Ogata-Mura do not outweigh the collapse of the village’s social structure or the threat to the system.

‘You Can Cut Costs’

“This shows that when you have big-scale farms, you can cut costs, but the scale there is just too far from what Japanese farmers really have,” said Hideo Saito, vice president of the Akita agricultural co-op responsible for buying Ogata-Mura’s rice on the government’s behalf. “So it’s not a practical model. Our feeling is, it would be better if it had never existed.”

The revolt at Ogata-Mura and the bureaucracy’s response says much about Japan’s attitude toward rice and its farmers. Only by understanding that attitude can foreigners comprehend why so many American trade initiatives aimed at forcing the Japanese to open their markets to rice exports have died aborning.

It also gives some hint of changes afoot. For until very recently, the food control system has not even been a proper subject of debate in Japan.

Near-Starvation Recalled

For years, Japan’s viewpoint was that the farms must be preserved so that the nation would not be overly dependent on imports to feed its people in a time of crisis. Many Japanese still remember nearly starving during World War II and the early years of the postwar U.S. occupation.

The Japanese government regularly assesses the country’s food self-sufficiency ratio, and each decline occasions considerable hand-wringing. Last year the rate dropped by another 1%, to 70% overall. Measured by domestic production of total caloric needs, Japan’s self-sufficiency lags well behind that of the United States, France, West Germany or Britain.

The one exception, which the Japanese are understandably loath to relinquish just to accept more imports, is rice, of which the nation produces more than 100% of its needs.

As for arguments that self-sufficiency is an unnecessary goal in a world of food surpluses, the Japanese invariably allude to the so-called “Nixon shocks” of the 1970s, when the United States briefly and unexpectedly embargoed soybean exports.

Since Japan produced only 30% of its own soybean needs and accounted for 25% of America’s export market, alarm at the embargoes endures. America’s habit of using wheat exports as a political weapon against the Soviet Union also marks the United States, in the Japanese view, as an unreliable trading partner.

There is also a deep cultural rationale for the protection of rice farmers in particular.

As the French language is to the French, rice is considered the repository of all in the Japanese culture that is pure and refined, not to mention much that is imaginary.

Appropriate Metaphors

Agriculture officials seldom fail to invoke the image of the emperor bending over the frail rice stalks planted every year on the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo. Bureaucrats strive to find appropriate metaphors to describe rice’s importance.

“For you Americans, Christmas is unthinkable without Christmas trees,” said Tokuo Matsumoto, executive director of Zenchu, the national organization of agricultural cooperatives and the farm sector’s principal political voice. “In the same way, our country is unthinkable without rice paddies.”

The Japanese are never so improbably chauvinistic as when they discuss rice.

“The feeling toward nature in Japan is different from (that of) foreign countries,” remarked Kiyokatsu Taguchi, a part-time farmer and rice ideologue in Akita, the capital of the prefecture that includes Ogata-Mura. “Because the people are thinking about rice, they are closer to nature.”

Pouring tea for visitors in a high-rise office in the most thoroughly industrialized nation in all Asia, he rhapsodizes, “The Japanese don’t want to conquer nature, but just to follow the rule of nature and live according to it.”

Religious Significance

The Japanese invest rice with religious significance. In old Japan, each stage of rice cultivation was accompanied by a village religious ceremony. Anthropologists believe that Japan even owes its traditional extended family and communal village life to the labor-intensive cultivation that rice demands. Wetland farming requires painstaking grading and diking of land to hold water, then the construction and constant maintenance of fresh-water irrigation systems.

Japan’s history is inextricably bound up with rice. It was the first known currency of the Japanese. Feudal lords measured their power by the rice harvest that they extracted from their vassals. And peasant uprisings over rice prices have occurred so regularly that the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan devotes separate articles to “rice” and “rice riots.”

But basing public policy on tradition is costly and perhaps unrealistic. For one thing, the Japanese taste for rice is ebbing.

Western Fast Foods

Rice consumption in Japan peaked just before the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which marked the introduction of Western fast-food franchises such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Convinced by their experience at Olympics concession stands that a promising market existed in Japan, fast-food companies started arriving about five years later. Now they seem more common than gas stations and are partly responsible for the shift in Japan’s dietary habits.

Since 1963, rice demand has fallen to 10.8 million tons from 13.4 million. Per capita consumption has fallen even more sharply to 73.4 kilograms (162 pounds) per person, down 38% from the peak of 118.3 kilograms (261 pounds) in 1962.

Nevertheless, debate over whether Japan should spend so much protecting the producers of a declining staple has long been deadlocked by the farmers’ political power.

Rural Voters’ Edge

Traditional legislative districts are carefully preserved to give rural voters a 3-to-1 voting edge in parliamentary elections, making farmers far better represented in Parliament than their numbers justify. Because rural Japanese vote more regularly and consistently than city people, they also count highly as supporters of the majority Liberal Democratic Party. Every prime minister since 1960, nine of them in all, has come from a rural district.

In sheer numbers, farmers are steadily disappearing from the countryside. Farm households dropped to 4 million in 1987 from 6 million in 1960. Of those, only about 500,000 households run full-time farms. Many of the rest are considered “life-style farmers,” engaged in agriculture as a hobby or sideline. Nationwide, only $1 out of every $6 earned by farm families actually comes from agriculture.

The next generation promises to pare those figures back even more. By one government estimate, only one in 40 farm households has a family member ready to take over when the current head of household retires or dies.

Differently Stated

The inevitable result is that the rice issue more and more is being articulated in terms of Japan’s urban, not agricultural, economy.

“I began the public debate here by saying that rice imports would be so small that they would not have a real impact on trade,” said Kenichi Ohmae, head of the Tokyo office of the U.S. management consulting firm of McKinsey & Co. and a leading speaker on the rice economy. “The real impact of rice in Japan is that it grows on flat land, and only 30% of our country is flat. We people live in rabbit hutches because rice growers take up precious land.”

But for all the discussion, rice imports, with the exception of some low grades used to make sake and snack crackers, are still taboo.

The Japanese go to great lengths even to prevent private imports; last year, customs officials cracked down on merchant seamen, who were bringing home so much California rice from their U.S. stopovers--3 to 10 times cheaper and by all accounts just as tasty as the domestic product--that authorities feared the volume was throwing off the supply-demand balance.

Running Awry

Against this backdrop, the Ogata-Mura experiment has been running awry. In a way, the model farm was in trouble almost from the start.

The community was first planned in the 1950s, when Japan’s rice production was still running well behind demand. Concerned about the low productivity of domestic rice farms, which to this day average less than 2.4 acres each--U.S. rice farms average close to 250 acres--the government imported reclamation experts from the Netherlands and set them to work on Lake Hachiro, a broad, shallow lagoon off the Japan Sea. (The name Ogata-Mura means “Big Lagoon Village.”)

An oval dike was run 29 miles around the perimeter and a meandering river leading to the sea was straightened and controlled to keep salt water out and fresh water regulated.

The result was 41,142 acres of lake-bottom clay sludge surrounded by a freshwater moat. The land was perfect for raising rice and ample enough to create big, efficient paddies. The plots could be divided into regular rectangles, a luxury in a nation where the need to string farms around mountains and into tiny valleys creates parcels that more resemble gerrymandered political districts.

A Year of Tests

The authorities then chose an all-Japan farming team for their showcase. Applicants for the move to Ogata-Mura had to endure a year of tests. They had to be younger than 45, with at least two family members capable of immediately joining the farm labor force, a modern reminder of the family structure of old rice farms. The land they owned in their home towns had to be sold, binding them more firmly to their new home.

But by the time the first settlers arrived to receive their 25 acres each of paddy and a house with a steeply pitched blue roof, Japan was already close to producing a rice surplus. The farmers were asked to shift some of their new land to other crops, including wheat and soybeans.

None of those crops produced income as reliable as the government rice price supports. By 1970, when the government stopped importing new settlers and issued all existing farmers another 12.5 acres to parcel off the unallotted land, many were concerned that the alternative crops would not cover their mortgage payments.

That’s when the battle started. First one farmer planted his entire allotment in rice, then several more. Whenever Mayor Miyata or higher officials tried to pressure the farmers, once by trying to assess the entire village for the expense of buying the surplus rice, the rebel contingent grew.

When the village rice storage co-op refused to buy the rebels’ rice except at sharply discounted prices, they spent close to $100,000 to build their own facility. Now, saddled with construction debts, the non-cooperating farmers are forced to sell all their rice to the black market to pay them off.

Imports Seem Inevitable

So the Ogata-Mura farmers are in a stand-off. To the rebels, who like to portray their over-planting as much more than strictly a commercial judgment, the issue is how to make Japan’s farms competitive, on grounds that imports will find their way in sooner or later.

“We can’t apply 50-year-old rules when things are changing so fast,” said Shikama. “It may look better to have everybody agreeing and doing the same thing, but it’s not fitting in an international world. Just to have farmers getting together in this little corner of Japan isn’t going to help much.”


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