Share this article

print logo


Having won the battle over beef and oranges, the United States now insists that the Japanese must eat American rice. When the Uruguay Round of multilateral negotiations ends in December, Tokyo may be forced to admit California and Arkansas rice.

Big business, the media and many academics in Japan side with Washington. To hear them tell it, by refusing to liberalize rice, Tokyo is shirking its international obligation to uphold free trade.

Critics say Japan can't have it both ways: The economy depends on unrestricted access to foreign markets, and we are duty-bound to reciprocate on rice.

But there's another side to the story.

Japan is the world's largest importer of agricultural commodities. Except for rice, we rely on imports for virtually all of our cereal grains -- a degree of dependence no other country permits.

Canada has a self-sufficiency rate of 223 percent, which means it grows more than twice the amount of grain it consumes. The figure for the United States and France, traditionally large agricultural producers, is 181 percent. Even Britain, home of the industrial revolution, has a rate of 113 percent. Before unification, West Germany had 96 percent.

Japanese farmers satisfy less than one-third of the country's cereal needs. Presently, we meet a mere 17 percent of the domestic demand for wheat, 6 percent for soybeans and 1 percent for corn. Measured in calories, West Germany supplied 93 percent of its own grain, Japan only 49 percent.

There is a risk of becoming even more dependent on food imports. If rice is liberalized, the current 30 percent self-sufficiency ratio will plummet.

This is a serious security concern. What if the grain-exporting countries suddenly cut off supplies? What if the world's sea lanes were closed because of regional hostilities or some other reason?

The bulk of our grain comes from the United States. But how long will America produce an exportable surplus? Agribusiness is destroying the land. In many parts of the U.S. farm belt, forests have been leveled, the topsoil is eroding and fertility is declining.

Washington could also use food as a weapon to win political or diplomatic concessions.

The real problem is not rice but the loss of our ability to grow crops that are the mainstay of the Japanese diet. Instead of phasing out government farm aid, Tokyo should offer new subsidies to expand the production of wheat, soybeans and corn.

It is true that a guaranteed basic income encourages cultivators to overproduce. Governments usually respond by forcing them to curtail production or by dumping the surplus overseas. It's a vice?
cious circle.

But the worst offender on this score is not Japan but the United States. For decades, Washington has offered farmers export subsidies, enabling them to flood the world with cheap foodstuffs that have disrupted the international grain market.

U.S. food policy is also highly protectionist. Washington has invoked the Meat Import Law, which calls for import restrictions when there is excess domestic supply, and used GATT-authorized waivers to shield certain products from foreign competition.

American rice is a pampered crop. Subsidies account for about 35 percent of the price of the average U.S. farm commodity, but the figure for rice is nearly 70 percent.

U.S. exhortations to import rice are an attempt to hide policy failures by blaming Japan. Washington is trying to force us to buy the excess output of coddled American farmers.

If Washington wants us to lift import barriers on rice, it should set an example and first dismantle its own farm subsidy program. Free trade begins at home.

NISHIO KANJI is a professor of German at Japan's University of Electro-Communications. This article was translated from the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun by the Asia Foundation's Translation Service Center.

There are no comments - be the first to comment