By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
NIIGATA CITY, Japan -- Koji Yamaguchi, a 49-year-old public relations professional, loves his rice. He eats it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But when Yamaguchi, who works for the city of Niigata, sits down for a meal with his daughter Misaki, 14, it's not the Japanese staple she reaches for. No, she prefers bread or pasta -- a break with the dietary traditions of her forebears, including her grandparents, who were rice farmers.
In a sign of changing times that has wounded Japan's gastronomical pride and mobilized its powerful farm lobby, the national rice bowl these days is increasingly less full. Challenged by trendy culinary newcomers such as croissants and spaghetti, baguettes and French fries, per capita rice consumption among Japanese has fallen to half of what it was in the late 1960s.
In response, farmers and retailers are scrambling to find new ways to keep people loyal to the tender grain that remains a symbol of prosperity and self-sufficiency.
Akinori Hokari, 35, who took over management of his family's rice shop in Niigata 10 years ago, is one of the people giving the frumpy product a makeover. His tiny shop now offers a line of "designer rices" -- in reality, unmilled grains that when added in small amounts to a rice cooker turn traditional white rice pink or purple. For the health-conscious, he offers high-fiber mixtures such as oat rice and brown rice that has been steeped in water until sprouts emerge.
He's won some converts. Customers concerned about their health love the sprouted rice, which adds a little crunch to their meal, and the colored rices have been a hit among younger customers, he said. He has also managed to persuade some of Niigata's hospitals to buy the pink-tinged rice to serve to new mothers.
Still, many older people remain wary, particularly of unmilled grains, which remind them of the World War II years, when refined white rice was a scarce luxury.
The local rice retailers' association is also going upscale, getting member shops to market Toki Hikari, an organic rice raised on Sado Island, 25 miles away. The rice is grown in small quantities, without the aid of machinery, and priced at 30 to 40 percent above the country's top varieties.
Japan's culinary experts are trying to invent entirely new rice products, although so far there has been no breakthrough comparable to ethanol, which has transformed the fortunes of corn growers.
In Osaka, Koichi Fukamori made his name baking flaky croissants and baguettes, but a few years ago he was recruited for a new mission: boosting rice consumption by developing tasty baked goods made from rice flour. "I thought he was crazy," Fukamori said, referring to the local Agriculture Ministry official who had tracked him down via the Internet.
Now, the good-humored baker, who wears red shoes when he cooks, sells rice bread and rolls in his shops. The bread is tender -- and discernibly chewy, which Fukamori said is a bonus for the Japanese palate because it evokes the texture of rice cakes eaten at New Year's celebrations.
Yukio Hattori, a Japanese television personality best known to American audiences as a commentator on the Food Network cooking show "Iron Chef," has joined the campaign. His smiling face appears on the Japanese government's version of the food pyramid -- a multicolored chart that spells out the optimal diet.
Hattori takes a back-to-basics approach. He tut-tuts about the shift away from the traditional Japanese diet of rice, vegetables and meats. Not only that, he sniffs, more young people are forgetting how to use chopsticks properly. He argues that the Japanese people have "DNA more suitable for rice than bread." Japanese society must abandon the its postwar dream of "a steak as big as a shoe," he said.
The soul of rice farming in Japan is represented by people such as Toshiyuki Tsuboya, 48, a member of the 16th generation of rice growers in his family.
Dressed in a blue jumpsuit and sneakers, he recently walked some visitors to the edge of his rice fields in Niigata. His chest swelled with pride as he pulled up a leafy green stalk. In one swift motion, he sliced open the bottom with a pocket knife to show a tiny golden rice grain working its way up through the plant.
"See?" he said, motioning toward the acres of scenic green fields. "This is the best place, the best weather, the best water."
There is nothing Tsuboya loves to do more at the end of the day than munch on a rice ball with a bowl of miso soup, he said. But "even my own family doesn't eat rice," he grumbled. "They say it's too much trouble, because you always have to have something else with it."
Niigata prefecture, on Japan's west coast, is one of the country's biggest agricultural regions. Farmers grow many crops here -- soybeans, tulips, peaches and pears -- but it is still rice that stirs their passion.
"It is widely known to the Japanese that [Niigata] rice is the best in Japan," bragged Akira Shinoda, the mayor of Niigata city, who also spoke highly of the region's sake, or rice wine.
Tokyo resident Chika Yoshida is typical of the younger Japanese who analysts say are responsible for the decline. Rice doesn't fit into their time-crunched, on-the-go lifestyle.
"Growing up, I ate rice every morning," said Yoshida, 30, whose parents' generation ate some variation of steamed rice, fried rice, rice porridge or rice-flour noodles or cakes at every meal. These days, she rarely has time for breakfast -- and while it's not difficult to make rice, she said, "it takes too much time."
The shift to Western foods has had other implications for Japanese -- notably, their waistlines. The trend is most evident among men and children. In 1988, 18.9 percent of Japanese children were considered obese, according to a survey. By 2005, the percentage had risen to 24.3.
Even the most optimistic promoters concede that rice bread, designer rices and food education can do only so much. So, many farmers and merchants are looking west -- to China. With the right pitch, they say, Japanese rice can become a status symbol for that fast-growing country's newly rich. At 10 to 20 times the price of locally grown rice, it's truly a luxury, said Yukio Takahashi, an agricultural policy official in Niigata, but it could take off.
Hokari, the young rice merchant, dreams of sending his product abroad someday to an even more desirable market. Where?
"Las Vegas," he said.