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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own