The spectacle of Japanese consumers, who enjoy some of the highest incomes in the world, queuing for hours simply to buy sacks of rice, is a curious one. But for the past week television and newspapers have been carrying pictures of housewives, dressed in their cashmere coats and shawls, waiting in long lines to buy what they fear may be some of the last pure Japanese rice on offer this year.
Japanese rice stocks are running out - and foreign rice is being forced on the public. Families are threatening to change their diets to bread or pasta, rather than force unpalatable foreign rice grains down their throats.
There is a whiff of doomsday in the air. What is happening in Japan goes deeper than the threats to the 'British sausage' from the European Commission.
The Japanese have always been told their rice is pure, that rice has a soul, and in a general sense that rice symbolises Japan. The Emperor engages in elaborate rice- planting and harvesting rituals every year in the Imperial Palace. During the November harvest ritual, the Emperor lies in a sacred bed with a court lady in a secret rite that some scholars think includes sexual intercourse as a symbol of the rejuvenation of his, and the nation's, soul. Rice, in short, has semi-sacred status in the national ideology.
By contrast, foreign rice has been branded impure, something to be shunned. Despite the fact that Japan uses more pesticides than anywhere else in the world, consumers have been persuaded by decades of government propaganda that foreign rice is 'contaminated' with chemicals.
But with last year's disastrous harvest in Japan, the worst since the Second World War, at least 20 per cent of the nation's rice will have to be imported this year. And under concessions to the Gatt world trade agreement, Japan will not be able to revert to a closed rice market later on.
The government is now in the embarrassing position of having to do a U-turn and persuade Japanese consumers that foreign rice is perfectly all right. Last week the cabinet was filmed eating cakes made from foreign rice flour. Even the Emperor, whose mythical power rests on his ability to guarantee a good rice harvest every season, has announced that he and his family will eat foreign rice in the palace.
The public, however, has yet to be convinced. In a serious bureaucratic blunder, the Food Agency has imported an unnecessarily low grade of rice from Thailand, which Japanese consumers have rejected. This has set back the foreign rice campaign: consumers were getting used to Californian rice, which is similar to Japanese strains.
Incendiary comments from an opposition politician, who claimed rats and cigarettes were turning up in the Thai rice (claims that could not be substantiated) only stiffened consumer resistance. And when the government announced last week that domestic and foreign rice must be blended to avoid shortages, panic broke out.
The last bags of pure Japanese rice were hoarded like gold dust. The black market price for top quality Japanese rice soared to pounds 75 for 10kg, compared to the normal price of pounds 31.
Consumer groups have demanded that the regulation for blending domestic and foreign rice be rescinded: if the price of Japanese rice shoots up, so be it, they say. Consumers should have the right to choose. But the government has other ideas. One of the main reasons for blending foreign and domestic rice is to keep the average price high: normal rice prices in Japan are ten times those in Thailand, so the government is making an enormous profit by importing cheap Thai rice and selling it at Japanese prices. Like Japanese rice itself, the bureaucrats' fingers are sticky.Reuse content