Most Japanese people, myself included, find Japanese rice to be far superior in taste to any other kind. Rice being the staple grain in Japan, with the majority of people eating it at least once a day, and many at every meal, the thought of replacing Japanese rice with a foreign breed is unthinkable. But that is just what may happen in the coming years. Rice farming in Japan has become a dwindling business, and if more social value and government funds are not put into the agricultural sector, prospects for maintaining this aspect of culture in everyday life are bleak.
Currently, virtually all rice in Japan is home-grown. This is for the most part due to quotas and high tariffs on foreign rice, which some nations complain violate free trade laws. It is estimated that without such restriction on foreign rice imports, US exports to Japan could amount to $656 million per year.
Maintaining rice production in the mountainous landscape of Japan is difficult. What has become even more pressing in recent years, however, has been the dwindling population of rice farmers. A recent New York Times article entitled “Japan’s Rice Farmers Fear their Future is Shrinking” cited several of the problems Farmers are being confronted with. With 70% of the three million farmers being 60 or older, Japanese agriculture had “no money, no youth, no future” in the words of Hitoshi Suzuki, owner of his families 450-year-old farm.
Japan’s shrinking population and soaring deficits are affecting all sectors, but especially agriculture, where farmers depend on government subsidies to survive. The rural economic system of small family farms is terribly inefficient and there is little incentive for young people to remain in their ancestral country homes when much more lucrative jobs are abundant in cities. Urban expansion around major cities like Yokohama, my hometown, are shrinking farmland acre by acre.
The predicament is this: the Japanese government no longer has the economic power to subsidize farmers as heavily as needed. If Japanese farmers continue to be unable to meet the market’s demands, the government ma be forced to lower trade barriers and allow rice from the US and also China to flood the market. This, however, is a death sentence for Japan’s farmers, who, though few in number, form the base of the Liberal Democratic Party’s support. Though there are no simple answers, this is a question of national importance, and as such efforts to sustain Japanese cultural cuisine will not be abandoned.