Leading Article: Against the grain of Japanese attitudes

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The Independent Online
HAVING at last - as part of this month's momentous Gatt trade deal - opened Japan to imports of foreign rice, the Japanese government faces an uphill task in persuading people to eat the alien stuff. For years the farmers' lobbyists have put it about that foreign rice, even the japonica strain the Japanese like, tastes worse than the domestic variety, and is full of noxious pesticides. Even consumer groups opposed imports.

The significance of the last-minute Gatt climbdown was more than commercial. To the Japanese, sticky white rice is the staple food, a symbol of Shinto faith, that has been cultivated for 2,000 years. To everyone else, it became a symbol of all the complaints made against the unfairness of Japanese discrimination against imports.

On a cramped archipelago, with tiny farms and high wage and land costs, growing rice ought not to be economic. Californian farms are 100 times larger; Thai wages are 20 times lower. Yet Japan has insisted stubbornly on self-sufficiency and a ban on commercial imports. Consequently, Japanese urban families pay seven times the world market price for their daily bowl, while rice farmers in Asia and the United States have been denied access to what ought to be their most lucrative market.

Thoughtful Japanese realised in the Eighties that if it refused to change, the country would lose more jobs to resentful protectionism abroad than it could create in its shrinking farm sector. Yet the strength of the rice lobby - born of an electoral system that gives rural votes twice the weight of those in the city - proved more than equal to the struggle.

It took the fall of the Liberal Democrats, and the arrival of the coalition led by Morihiro Hosokawa, to change that. Mr Hosokawa played with perfect timing, forcing the controversial decision to end the import ban on his socialist coalition partners when his standing in the polls was at its peak.

It will be some time before the country's braver consumers can benefit. Under the Gatt deal, Japan will import enough rice to meet 4 per cent of demand in 1995, rising to 8 per cent six years later. But the rice will be imported and distributed by the government, so consumers will see no discounts. Only in 2001, when the quotas turn into tariffs, will prices begin to fall.