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Imports Called Threat to Heritage : Rice Cultivation Deeply Rooted in Japanese Life

Times Staff Writer

This is the heart of snow country, a narrow basin where the Uono River spills northward from the Mikuni Range toward the Sea of Japan, a harsh place where nature dumps 10 feet of snow each winter and stifling humidity makes summer an ordeal.

But in October, Uonuma, as they call this district of Niigata prefecture about 100 miles northwest of Tokyo, is an idyll, comfortably between its seasonal extremes. And rice, not snow, becomes king.

Sights and smells of the rice harvest overpower the senses: A patchwork of small paddies and low levees blankets the valley, and yellowish-green stalks lean heavily with grain where the combines have not yet mowed them. Here and there, mounds of rice chaff burn amid the stubble of fields where the cutting is finished.

On a terraced hillside, sections of the crop have collapsed under their own weight, making the use of harvesting machines impossible. So Shizue Tomii, 66, stoops in her field to cut the rice stalks with a hand-held sickle--a back-breaking form of labor that has not changed much since people began growing rice here, according to historical records, about 1,000 years ago.

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“It’s hard work, but I’ve been doing it all my life,” Tomii said. “I guess you could say it’s a good feeling to be out here.”

The scene may be difficult to imagine for people unfamiliar with Japan’s rugged, mountainous hinterlands, and it contrasts sharply with the ugly industrial sprawl of Tokyo and the other major cities along the Pacific Coast.

To see it, however, is to begin to understand why many Japanese react with disbelief at the mention of importing foreign rice.

Although arguments against opening the country’s closed rice market have centered on self-sufficiency and food security, neither agro-economics nor the political interests of Japan’s notoriously inefficient farmers can explain the visceral attachment Japanese have to the idea of growing their own rice.

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Rice Rituals Could Fade

Producers and consumers share the fear that if inexpensive foreign rice is allowed in, these paddies could all be gone someday, replaced by golf courses, ski condominiums and industrial parks.

With the transformation of the landscape could come ecological ruin, and people worry that an intangible aspect of their culture, born of an ancient ritual of rice cultivation, would disappear forever.

“There is an image of paddies in the countryside that’s at the bottom of our consciousness, and if we lose it we’ll lose our spiritual backbone, the essence of our civilization,” said Masaharu Osaki, a professor at Tokyo’s Kakugakuin University who specializes in the economy and culture of rice. “Our humanity could be destroyed by the emptiness of urban society.”

Whether or not it is justified by reality, an amorphous sense of foreboding about the future of the rural heritage is one of the most powerful forces behind Japan’s hard-line stance on the rice import question, which is once again a flash point in trade friction between the United States and Japan.

U.S. Trade Complaint

U.S. Trade Representative Clayton K. Yeutter has until Friday to respond to a petition filed under Section 301 of the 1974 U.S. Trade Act by the Rice Millers Assn. and the Rice Council for Market Development, alleging that Japan’s rice policies violate international trade rules.

Yeutter rejected a similar complaint two years ago, but the call for sanctions has been endorsed this time by Vice President George Bush, the Republican candidate for president. The issue is expected to be taken up soon in multilateral negotiations before the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

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From the American point of view, Japanese consumers should welcome U.S.-grown rice because it would cost about half what they now pay for the staple food in their diet. That may have been the case when U.S. negotiators succeeded in prying open Japan’s strict quotas on beef and oranges earlier this year. But rice remains a sacred cow.

Not only do ruling conservative politicians draw key support from rural constituencies, but several major consumer groups actively oppose rice imports. Public opinion polls show that about 70% of the Japanese do not want the system opened up. When economic arguments run aground, the “culture” defense is invoked, often based on logic incomprehensible to almost anyone who is not Japanese.

A Part of Landscape

“We’re not thinking about preserving paddies just for their capacity to produce rice,” said Katsumi Noda, executive director of the Consumers Union of Japan.

“There’s a much broader perspective involved. Rice paddies have been a fixed part of the landscape for centuries. This is where human beings interact with nature in Japan, where our livelihood was created. We cannot conceive of a Japanese landscape without rice paddies.”

Japanese rice patriots are not without foreign sympathizers. George Fields, a business consultant and consumer analyst in Tokyo, wrote in an article for the Japan Times earlier this year that “the U.S. is committing a grave error in lumping all farm products together at the expense of true consumer sentiment.”

The Japanese may be obscuring the issue by staking their defense on the self-sufficiency argument and the “highly insulting suggestion” that Americans cannot be trusted to provide a secure supply of rice, Fields said. But he added that concern about preserving the pastoral environment is not totally unfounded.

“Can we imagine the United States without those vast stretches of wheat and corn?” Fields wrote. “Of course not. If this is so for the North American continent, why should it not generate even more intense feelings in these small and congested islands?”

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Rice Farming Threatened

Already, a host of economic and social pressures have made the Japanese rice farmer a kind of endangered species.

The government is trying to force rationalization on the industry, long spoiled by price supports, and has lowered the amount it pays for rice by about 10% over the past two years. It is also proceeding with a plan to cut down by nearly one-third the amount of land devoted to rice cultivation in order to suppress a ballooning rice surplus.

Keizai Doyukai, an influential group of business leaders, recommended in a report last month that rice production be streamlined to involve only a core of large-scale farmers who could halve their production costs to compete against rice imports. The proposal would eliminate hundreds of thousands of part-time farmers who now produce a significant proportion of Japan’s precious rice crop by tilling tiny plots of land.

Such ideas are not taken lightly in the Uonuma district, where the average size of a family farm is just under two acres.

Produce Superior Flavor

Each year villagers in the area produce about 4,200 metric tons of koshi hikari , a superior grade of rice so prized by Japanese consumers for its flavor that it fetches top prices in the rigid, government-controlled rice distribution system.

As production costs rise and government prices decline, however, local farmers face the constant challenge of getting more yield out of their limited land with automation and improved methods of fertilization.

Income from rice, said to be the only crop that will grow well in Uonuma’s extreme climate, accounts for about 17% of the local economy, and it is shrinking in proportion to the growth of the snow country’s premier industry--skiing. Most families have someone employed at one of the nearby ski areas during the winter; only a few households derive more than half their income from rice farming.

The area, made famous by Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata in his novel “Snow Country,” is now linked to Tokyo and the prefectural capital of Niigata by a bullet train, which has brought additional pressures for development and drawn young labor away from the fields. To a large extent, it remains up to a breed of tillers commonly called “Sunday farmers” to uphold the rice tradition while holding down other jobs. Sometimes they do so without tangible profits, or even at a loss, according to officials of the Shiozawa Agricultural Cooperative.

‘Attachment to the Land’

“An American might look at these paddies and wonder why anyone would bother to work them,” said Tomoyasu Takeda, a local dairy farmer and co-op official. “But it’s not just for economic reasons. I guess we have an attachment to the land that defies explanation.”

For Toshio Takamura, 58, rice paddies are a legacy he plans to hand down to his eldest son, Ryoichi, 30, and grandson, Masato, 11. Takamura’s family has cultivated rice on the same land for at least 294 years. Before that, the records are not clear.

“I’m not going to let go of my land no matter what the government does,” Takamura said. “It’s inconceivable that you could take rice away from our lives and replace it with something else, but we’re beginning to see that this may be a possibility.

“My son went to California last year to study the situation there, and he was really surprised at how good American rice tastes. It can’t be dismissed. We’re genuinely frightened.”

Farmers Have Other Income

As a younger man, Takamura agonized over the decision whether to succeed his father in farming or pursue his newly acquired trade as a plumber. He chose rice, he said, because it was rooted in tradition and seemed more secure. Now his six acres or so of paddies makes him one of the largest landowners in the town of Shiozawa, yet farming accounts for only about 60% of the family’s income.

Takamura also works as a boiler man at a ski resort, where his wife is a hotel maid and his son is a member of the ski patrol.

“If it weren’t for the ski industry, I’d probably have to go off to the city to find a job,” said the son, Ryoichi, whose younger brother is a computer software engineer in Tokyo. “I’m lucky to be able to stay here and work with my father.”

Japan’s stubborn attachment to rice cultivation may be inseparable from cultural values that champion filial piety and communal harmony, values that still hold sway over the vast majority of Japanese who live in cities.

Keep Ties to Family Village

Many urban Japanese still list on their family registry, the equivalent of a birth certificate, a “permanent domicile” in the rural town or village where their peasant ancestors originated--even though they may never have actually lived there. Every August, swarms of people return to the countryside to pray at ancestral graves or visit the parents, grandparents and other relatives who have stayed behind in the rice paddies.

Anthropologist Kunio Yanagida once noted the close connection between ancestor worship and Shinto festivals devoted to ta no kami , the gods of the rice field.

“Rice farming is done not only for eating, but also for holding festivals,” Yanagida wrote. “The ancestral spirits cannot be deified without rice harvests.”

At the apex of rice worship is the emperor, the supreme priest of the Shinto religion whose enthronement ceremonies and annual rituals are closely tied to the planting and harvesting of the crop. Rice wine and rice cakes play important roles in Shinto and Buddhist rites. Local communities throughout Japan observe a calendar of rice-related festivals.

Gathered at Shrine

One such event was held recently in Ozato, the hamlet within Shiozawa where the Takamura family lives, just as the harvest was nearly complete. About 25 rice farmers wearing their Sunday best gathered at 10 a.m. at Ichinomiya, a small, weather-worn shrine surrounded by paddies.

They sat cross-legged on the raised floor of the shrine as Sumio Onozuka, a schoolteacher who had donned the hereditary robes of a part-time Shinto priest for the occasion, beat a drum, recited prayers of thanksgiving before the altar and offered freshly harvested rice to the gods.

Also offered were 225 pairs of chopsticks made of sumac wood, to enable that number of gods and spirits to feast on the new rice. Takamura, who served as master of ceremonies in his capacity as Ozato headman, had trouble explaining the exact meaning of the annual ritual, which the hamlet observes every Oct. 9.

“We mainly come to drink sake together and eat,” he said.

This they did as soon as Onozuka completed his rites, but a slightly melancholy tone prevailed. Times are changing, and this year’s harvest was celebrated with a degree of uncertainty about the future.

“Our animal instincts tell us that eventually the foreign rice will come in,” said Keichiro Shioya, 53, one of the regalers. “I don’t know what kind of effect it will have, and I suppose I won’t need to worry about it for a few years--maybe not in my lifetime. But I’ve got no confidence about entrusting my land to my sons.”


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