Sat, Sep 06, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Japanese don't like foreign rice, say Japanese farmers


The run-down neighborhood rice shop on a quiet side street in central Tokyo has seen a lot of change in 60 years: more traffic, more people, higher buildings.

One thing hasn't changed for 59-year-old Tomoyuki Takahashi, though. His customers still don't like foreign rice.

"Foreign rice is for foreigners," said the cigarette-puffing Takahashi, who has been working at the Azabu shop for 44 years. "Japanese people like only Japa-nese rice."

In a nation where rice once served as a currency, cultural and social sentiment have long been used by Japan to protect its politically connected rice farmers from foreign invaders.

Tariffs as high as 490 percent have discouraged exporters such as the US and Australia from boosting sales to the country beyond the current tariff-free 770,000 tonnes a year.

This has enabled a rice industry that foreign trade officials call inefficient and outmoded to lumber on unchecked, charging consumers six times the average world price.

It's not all about culture and tradition, however.

Domestic political considerations also loom large as Japan comes under growing pressure to lower agricultural barriers.

The issue of farm trade reform is a major sticking point in stalled global talks to free up trade between the WTO 146 members due to meet in Mexico next week.

For Japan, farm trade boils down to rice.

"Culturally speaking, agriculture is rice," said a Western diplomatic source. "Japanese rice is seen as an icon of cultural protectionism around the world."

Japan doles out seven times the cost of production in government support, with ?3 billion to ?4 billion (US$26 million US$34 million) in direct subsidies, according to the Rice Data Bank in Japan.

Japan has said repeatedly it will not accept a WTO proposal to limit tariffs on agricultural products. This could hobble a draft blueprint for trade talks even before negotiations start.

In a move to limit imports, Japan said this week it would release 190,000 tonnes of rice from stocks held by the government and private distribution channels to alleviate worries about a supply shortage and halt a sharp rise in prices.

A Sept. 20 vote in which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi bids for re-election as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will only end up strength-ening Japan's resolve to stand firm in the face of pressure, analysts said.

The base is shrinking, however. Some 2.9 million people worked on farms in 2000, down from 3.9 million a decade earlier and 12 million in 1960.

Tradition also plays a part.

Centuries of eating Japanese rice, favored by locals for its gelatinous texture and short, round grains, still make the prospect of tucking into foreign rice a hard sell, say foreign export officials, who blame Japan's tough import restrictions.

"Education is continuing, but it's still in the development phase," said a representative of a foreign rice growers' association, who asked not to be named. "Unfortunately, it's quite limited access to the market."

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