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Old Guard has its fingers in the rice bowl: Japan's farming idyll may be fading, but vested interests are clinging to the myth. Terry McCarthy reports from Tokyo

TAKE a walk through the Japanese countryside in the early autumn. With the sweet smell of ripening persimmons in the air and small rice fields bordered by bamboo thickets basking in the sun, it looks like a rural idyll beloved by Romantic painters.

Far away from the noise and stress of the big cities, farmers work peacefully in the age-old rhythms of planting, tending and harvesting rice, a staple of the Japanese diet.

The small fields require a complicated irrigation system, which involves the co-operation of all the farmers in each area. Farming families also help each other out in busy planting and harvesting seasons, and this mutual reliance is cited by many Japanese as the cultural root of group activitiy and consensus building that has been transferred to the nation's industrial and political worlds.

But this cosy idyll is about to be shattered by wicked trade negotiators from the West, who want Japan to stop subsidising its rice farmers and allow foreign rice imports. Now that the EC and the US have apparently settled their dispute on agricultural subsidies, the spotlight in the continuing Gatt trade liberalisation talks is shifting to Japan, and specifically its closed rice market. Politicians, including the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, have hinted that the government will eventually have to give in on the rice issue - but they will stall any decision until the last moment.

According to the more conservative defenders of Japan's ban on rice imports, such a decision will jeopardise centuries of cultural traditions, and leave the country dangerously dependent on foreign farmers.

Now take a closer look at the rural idyll. The first thing you will notice is that most of the farmers working in the rice fields are old. According to government figures for last year, 50 per cent of farmers are over 60. Even that figure is deceptive, since more than three- quarters of farmers are part- timers, relying on jobs in manufacturing for their main income. Only 16 per cent of all farms have a male under the age of 60 devoting more than 150 days a year to farming.

Not only are farmers ageing - the next generation is showing little interest in the back-breaking work of the paddies: 70 per cent of farming households have no successor interested in taking up the work. And were it not for the huge government subsidies that make Japanese rice about seven times more expensive than US or Thai rice, there would be no reason for anyone to grow rice in Japan. Rice farms in Japan have an average size of just 2.5 acres, compared to 9.5 in Thailand and 370 in the US, making the economies of large- scale farming impossible.

Just as the farming community is dying off, so too domestic consumption of rice is decreasing, as families have begun eating more bread and other grains in a diet that is becoming more Westernised. In 1962 the average per capita consumption of rice was 260lb. Today it is about 150lb.

The 'food security' argument is also suspect: although no rice is imported, except for the southern island of Okinawa (where tastes differ), 90 per cent of the country's wheat comes from overseas, and a total of 51 per cent of all food is imported.

So what precisely has the government been trying to protect with its continuing ban on rice imports? In many other areas Japan is a huge beneficiary of free international trade. The answer is as simple as it is cynical - the government of the entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is protecting itself. After decades of pampering farmers with rice subsidies, the LDP relies on farmers' votes to keep getting elected.

The key to this lock on power is demographical. Constituency boundaries in Japan were drawn up shortly after the war, when bombed-out cities were under- populated and the countryside was full of refugees. Over the next few decades of Japan's rapid economic growth, people flooded back into the cities. But no fundamental reform of the constituencies has been undertaken, which often means a rural constituent's vote is equal to around three votes in an urban area.

But time is running out for the LDP. The gerrymandering of constituencies has been repeatedly challenged in the courts. And the fear of becoming an outcast in the Gatt talks will probably force the government to give in on the rice issue - bureaucrats talk of a decision by next March. It will be presented as a grudging concession to overwhelming foreign pressure.

But in reality, just as many other traditional aspects of Japan have been discarded in the headlong rush towards economic development, so too the rural idyll of Japan's rice farmers is already starting to fade.