December. 1986/ TOKYO Business Today

That was a neat piece of lobbying Tokyo pulled offthe other day on the question of U.S. rice. The U.S. rice growers had argued that since they could produce rice some seven or eight times more cheaply than Japan then they were entitled under GATT to a share of the Japanese market.

Tokyo said no of course. Within days its lobbyists were at work warning about what would happen if a single grain of U.S. rice was to cross Japanese borders. Farmers would be bankrupted and the very roots of Japanese culture would be threatened. The LDP would be thrown out of office and anti-U.S. sentiment would sweep the nation.

Placating the Ally in the East

I had to chuckle over the last one. Whenever someone in the U.S. calls for protection against Japanese imports the cry from Tokyo and its friends is how sad U.S. consumers will be if they cannot get their regular supply of Japanese cars and electronics. But we are supposed to believe that Japanese consumers will be furious if they are denied the chance to pay a grossly inflated price for a staple food.

Anyway in the name of keeping Japan as the good faithful ally in the East, the powers that be in Washington went along with the pleas from Tokyo, again. To keep the evil Russians at bay, the U.S. seems to pay a pretty stiff price - SDI, the loss of manufacturing industry to Japan, and now rice. But if most Americans are happy enough to go along with all this, then so be it. What worries me is the effect on Japan.

The claimed aim of current food protection policies is to increase self-sufficiency in agriculture and to keep the farmers on the land. These are reasonable goals. The only problem is that current policies man- age to do exactly the opposite. I know, because I hap- pen to farm some hillside land abandoned by one of those protected farmers.

In the past my farmer friend used to plant the hillside with a range of crops and fruits. But today fat subsidies encourage him to do no more than cultivate the ricefields in the valley below. This he does well. But it only keeps him busy for a few weeks a year. The rest of the time he does casual work in the nearby town, drinks (a cynic describes most of the local gentry as sun-burned alcoholics), chats up the Filipino girls supplied to the local sunakku by the local gangster, and plays pachinko. In short, he is busy preserving traditional culture.

Justifying High Rice Prices

Meanwhile the foodstuffs he used to grow on the hillside now have to be imported. And because he and others like him now grow too much rice, they have to be subsidized even more heavily to move into beef production. The result is a further reduction in Japan's self-sufficiency since Japan now has to import almost as many tons of animal foodstuffs as the rice it produces.

The final insult to the intelligence is the claim that high rice prices are justified because of the high price of rice land. In fact it is just the opposite: land prices are high because rice prices are high. I know quite a few people who would pay a small fortune to enjoy the life-style my farmer friend has.

True, in the remoter areas of Japan it is not hard to find farmers who do work hard, preserve the traditional culture of the region and create a countryside of great aesthetic beauty. But they are quickly disappearing. They grow crops other than rice and, unless they come from Gumma Prefecture, they lack the votes to get large subsidies.

Meanwhile Japanese who, like myself, move from the cities to open up new or abandoned land to gro new crops (I grow Kiwi fruit if anyone is interested) get no subsidies at all. They are not even allowed to deduct their heavy initial expenses from city incomes. After all, city idealists who believe in nature and the soil are bound to be leftists. They won't vote for the LDP!

Meanwhile the lobbyists carry on about farming being the precious lifeblood of the nation. Who's fooling whom?


Tokyo Business Today Article Index