TRADE WATCH : Against the Grain

On the testy issue of international trade in rice, the Japanese people are far ahead of their government.

Consumers want cheaper rice. This means opening up their market to imported rice. But Tokyo keeps insisting that they pay two to three times more for their rice than shoppers around the world. It has long characterized rice as the cultural core of the country. The Japanese rice manifesto, long held, bans virtually all imports of the grain.

The reason is domestic politics: The country's ruling Liberal Democratic Party works overtime to protect its rural agricultural constituency, Japanese rice farmers, at the expense of consumers. Japanese Agriculture Minister Tomio Yamamoto rebuffed the latest U.S. request for Japan to open up its rice market. "Rice may be an item of interest to the U. S., but it is a matter of life and death to Japan," Yamamoto told U.S. Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter in Japan.

Oh? Maintaining that self- sufficiency in the commodity is necessary for food security is a questionable argument. The truth is, rice consumption in Japan has been steadily declining for years. So, how many times is Tokyo going to use these arguments, which are out of touch with the reality of modern Japan? The government should start listening to consumers: Surveys show 65% to 70% of the Japanese now favor some opening of the rice market.

Yeutter believes Japan soon will relax its reluctance to liberalize imports. Let's hope so. Tokyo's cooperation is necessary to the success of the current multilateral trade talks.

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