Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Rice, frogs and trade dilemmas

May 14, 2009

The blue sky and white clouds bounce off the surface of the water in the paddy as I trundle up and down on the rice-planting tractor, sending frogs leaping and splashing away in all directions.

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I’ve been coming to my wife’s family farm north of Tokyo to help with the rice planting and harvesting for seven or eight years now.

The family grows about 15 tonnes a year, enough to feed 250 people going by the modern Japanese average of 60 kilos per person per year.

“It used to be double that, but people eat different stuff now,” my father-in-law says, as we squat by the side of the paddy for a¬†break,¬†sipping canned coffee, another example of the changing national diet.

Rice is the only food Japan grows more of than it eats, but it does so with high tariff protection from foreign produce, giving the ruling Liberal Democratic Party a bit of a headache in trade talks.

Farmers provide a solid support base for the LDP, which naturally does what it can to protect their interests.

But when you’re running the world’s second-biggest economy, it’s no surprise that everyone wants to sell you things produced cheaply elsewhere, including your own national staple food.

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One step the government took years ago to encourage a bit of crop diversity this was to limit farmers’ rice planting to 72 percent of their land.

My in-laws also took their own step in the 1960s when they bought their first cow, and now most of the family income comes from milk.

But like many other dairy farmers, they’re not ready to give up on rice, which comes with plenty of cultural baggage – and perhaps the odd hint of local snobbery. My brother-in-law takes me to the station at the end of my stay, and we drive past some huge paddies that I haven’t seen before.

“Our paddies are old, so the rice is delicious, but these ones are new, so they’ve had to replace all the earth. The rice is just no good.”

Photo credit: REUTERS/Hugh Lawson

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