Japan saves face on rice climb-down

JAPAN yesterday announced it would open its rice market to foreign imports to comply with Gatt requirements, after an elaborate political show of reluctance aimed at saving face for the government.

The decision reversed a policy of self-sufficiency in rice devised during the Second World War, which had become increasingly outdated as the Japanese diet shifted away from reliance on the grain.

The Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, said after a special cabinet meeting: 'I feel great remorse for the fact that I could not defend our national interest 100 per cent.'

The decision was a foregone conclusion: with its economy so dependent on exports, Japan stands to lose more than most if the Gatt talks break down. But in deference to the powerful agricultural lobby the seven-party coalition of Mr Hosokawa put up the appearance of resisting the opening of the rice market until the very last minute. Tsutomu Hata, the Foreign Minister, flew to Geneva over the weekend, supposedly to make a last-ditch attempt to prevent rice imports. But as expected he returned to Tokyo yesterday, saying Japan could not expect any special concessions in the Gatt talks at this late stage. The impression given was that yet again Japan was being forced to give in to foreign pressure.

Some members of the Socialist Party, the largest party in the coalition, then threatened to withdraw from the government rather than go back on their promises to rural constituents to resist rice imports. But after stalling until early today they finally overcame their objections, in the interests of staying in power.

The details of how Japan would drop its ban on rice imports were hammered out in secret two months ago during a trip to Europe by Ichiro Ozawa, the main power-broker in the governing coalition. Under a compromise agreement, Japan will accept a Gatt proposal for 'minimum access' of foreign rice to the Japanese market over a six-year period starting from 1995, after which Tokyo will review whether to introduce tariffs on rice imports from the seventh year.

While Mr Ozawa was negotiating with European and US Gatt officials at an international level, Mr Hata was using his connections with the Ministry of Agriculture to form the necessary bureaucratic consensus inside Japan. Mr Hata served as Minister of Agriculture in 1985 and again in 1988.

Rice is a highly emotional issue in Japan, and has an almost mystical status in the country's cultural self-image. Social commentators are fond of attributing Japan's group-oriented social structure to the cooperation fostered by tending paddy fields.

But statistics show the Japanese are eating less and less rice. The farming population is ageing as few young people care to follow their parents into the fields. Subsidies to the rice farms cost the taxpayer more than pounds 15bn per year. And with Mr Hosokawa's government committed to political reform, including a redrawing of constituency boundaries which currently discriminate in favour of rural areas, the importance of the farming vote is disappearing.

SEOUL - South Korea's ban on rice imports will be partially lifted from 1995 under a deal agreed with the US yesterday, Reuter reports. The Korea Broadcasting System was reported as saying the agreement called for Seoul to import a 'minimum access amount' of rice from 1995 in return for a 10-year moratorium on replacing the nation's blanket ban with tariffs.

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