In Hungry World, Japan's Farmers Are Stuck With High-Priced Rice

Hiroto Endo and son Ryoshi are preparing to plant, though a quarter of last fall's crop sits unsold, in part because of Japan's changing diet.
Hiroto Endo and son Ryoshi are preparing to plant, though a quarter of last fall's crop sits unsold, in part because of Japan's changing diet. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 2, 2008

SHIRAKAWA, Japan -- When it comes to rice, Japan inhabits a strange and faraway planet.

Consumption of rice has been falling for nearly half a century, yet rice paddies still account for 60 percent of all farmland. Rice farms here are inefficient and tiny -- about 4,000 times smaller, on average, than rice farms in Australia. Yet Japan's harvest vastly exceeds domestic demand.

But what's truly otherworldly about this country's rice is its price -- especially in a year when the cost of Asia's staple food crop has exploded, causing hoarding, riots and hunger.

The price of rice on international markets has nearly doubled since January, to about $1,000 a ton. But it remains an absolute steal compared with rice grown in Japan, which costs more than $2,300 a ton.

Hiroto Endo, whose family has been growing rice for 10 generations, is struggling to make a living inside this weirdly warped market.

On his farm about 120 miles northeast of Tokyo, he and his son Ryoshi have just finished flooding fields to prepare for spring planting.

A quarter of last fall's crop, though, sits in his warehouse, unsold, even though it has won national awards for quality and taste.

"What we must do is raise demand from consumers," Endo said.

There was a tone of hopelessness in his voice, because the Japanese eat less rice with each passing year and international buyers continue to find the rice grown here to be insanely expensive.

As a long-term social policy, the government has largely protected rice farmers from imports, while keeping them on small farms with the help of subsidies. As Japan's cities boomed after World War II, the high price of rice helped send some of the wealth generated there to rural areas.

Japanese farmers produced 2.2 million tons of rice last year but exported only about 1,000 tons, which on the books of the world's leading rice exporters would be less than a rounding error. Thailand, for example, sold 9.4 million tons last year.

Even wealthy countries are put off by the price of Japanese rice. The United States imported just 128 tons last year, nearly all of which was purchased by Japanese restaurants, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.


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