Japan’s “Sacred” Rice Farmers Brace for Pacific Trade Deal’s Death Sentence

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Monday, 03 August 2015 00:00
By Nicole L. Freiner, The Conversation | News Analysis

In small wet rice fields, or suiden, across Japan, farmers don rubber boots to slosh through the fields and check their plantings. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in tropical Hawaii, negotiators are in the final stages of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that farmers fear will disrupt the rhythm of their even-metered life.

Rice is one of the five sacred areas of Japanese agriculture (with pork and beef, wheat, barley and sugarcane). To many, especially those living in rural areas, it remains the primary ingredient of the Japanese identity. As one farmer here said, “without rice, there is no Japan; the culture is a rice culture, it is the most basic element.”

Japan’s rice farmers have long been the backbone of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. But lately, as their numbers dwindle along with a declining population and demand for rice, this key cultural constituency seems to have lost the strength it once had to demand the government’s support.

There are now around 2 million rice farmers in Japan, down from 4 million in 1990 and as many as 12 million in 1960. Some farm part-time, while for others it’s their entire livelihood and passion.

Japanese negotiators in Maui, who only a few months ago seemed intent on protecting rice growers by maintaining current import quotas, appear to be bending to American pressure in exchange for allowing more Japanese autos into the US. The tit for tat of trade negotiations, along with the geopolitics of countering China, now threatens this ancient way of life.

I recently spent part of the summer doing fieldwork in Japan and discussing this issue with rice farmers and others in the agriculture industry to learn how the TPP will affect them.

“I’m a simple man. I love farming and just want to farm,” a rice grower in Toyama prefecture told me. “Foreign rice is a problem. I’m worried about the TPP and the future of these fields.”

Lifting Limits on Rice Imports

The TPP includes 11 nations (Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Japan) with the United States. The agreement has a goal of eliminating thousands of current tariffs that exist among these countries and to serve as a template for future trade agreements in the region.

Currently rice farmers are shielded by Japan’s limit on rice imports. The US is pushing Japan to increase its duty-free imports of American rice and related products from 10,000 tons a year to 215,000 tons. The US also wants Japan to open up its lands to foreign investment.

Per-capita rice consumption in Japan has declined 15% over the past two decades, according to the University of Arkansas. Back in April, Japan’s agriculture minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, cited this declining consumption in arguing the country must hold the line on rice imports to protect the farmers.

But that firm stance seems to have softened, though the details remain secret, and that’s bad news for Japan’s rice farmers.

The Decline of Nokyo

Most of these farmers live a country lifestyle, in a region naturally suited to rice growing because the rice paddies here get water from the melting mountain snow. Farmers in these small villages hundreds of miles from Tokyo on the other side of the Japanese Alps said they are most worried about the impact of the TPP on their ability to compete with foreign rice and foreign ownership of agricultural land.

Rice is grown in small plots (less than an acre). Currently, it is difficult for outside companies to own land because of legal measures. The TPP would allow for foreign land ownership as a form of investment in Japan’s rice market.

Past trade agreements have already led to a decline in Japanese agricultural cooperatives, known as nokyo, they said, because competition from foreign rice has made farming more difficult. Other reasons for the decline include the fact that fewer young people are taking on these family farms (Japanese farmers are on average in their 70’s).

A young female soybean farmer in Joge, outside of Hiroshima, reminisced about a time when active farms and their bright shades of green marked the neighborhood.

“One by one they stopped farming, the farms are gone,” she said, and now the land has transformed to weeds.

This has meant declining influence in the latest trade round. Although the national agriculture union has staged protests, the farmers I spoke with noted the inability of this and other such groups to help and protect farmers.

TPP and the US Pivot

The rice issue is one of the stickiest wickets that negotiators have had to deal with as they try to seal a deal. Getting an agreement rests largely upon the decisions made between the US and Japan, by far the biggest economies in the deal whose shared trade is seen as a building block of the partnership.

And at the moment, the plight of the rice farmers is being overshadowed by much bigger geopolitical issues that are dominating the trade negotiations. Most notably, the Obama administration views the TPP as a key element in its “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward Asia as it seeks to counter China. And by Asia, in terms of partners, it really means Japan, because of the strong US Japan alliance (or nichibei, in Japanese) dating from the end of WWII.

A report prepared by the Congressional Research Service on key TPP negotiation issues notes the US presence in Asia has declined, while America remains “distracted” by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the TPP is increasingly about the US-China rivalry, and the concerns of rice farmers and other citizens are unlikely to derail it.

End of a Way of Life

In some respects, the TPP is an attempt to get around the recent failure of developed and developing countries to achieve meaningful results at the World Trade Organization Doha round of negotiations that began in 2001 but collapsed in in 2008.

If negotiations are successful this week in Hawaii, Japan will not only open up its rice market to more US competition but will also allow for foreign investment and corporate land ownership through its investment protection measure. Foreign investment and corporate ownership mean larger plots of land and high mechanization. Small farms simply can’t compete with this intensive large-scale production.

Mr Saito (who like many Japanese goes only by his last name) fears an influx of foreign rice and landowners and says the TPP and the changes it brings will crush a way of life, and young farmers like him will be unable to survive.

“Farmers working by hand can’t compete,” he said. “We are lost.”

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