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Thursday, June 23, 2005

White Gold - The Politics of Rice


rice seedlings in Shonai, Oita

The neat, evenly spaced rows of newly planted rice remind me of my students at morning assembly. A uniform green echoes the school’s navy blue. As late as 2 weeks ago, most of the rice fields here were mirror-flat ponds reflecting the early summer sunlight up into my eyes as I whizzed to and fro on my bike. Now geometrically studded, the seedlings forming diagonals, triangles, grids and finally a single mass as my perspective changes.

Here in the mountains of Shonai, Oita Prefecture, we have both high and low rice culture. Nearer to ground level, that is to say, nearer to the busy main road, the rice fields are more spacious, the houses are newer, the water from the upstream dams fills the paddies to brimming. Higher up, fields are necessarily smaller as the mountainside gets steeper. Farmers complain that the rains haven’t fallen this year. Anyone who’s tried it knows that stiffer mud means harder planting though planting machines make this academic in most cases.

In the local izakaya, a couple of locals compare notes on the new planting machines they’ve just bought while making short work of a huge bottle of shochu. The figures make the price of rice in the supermarket seem believable for once. The truth is, like the rest of the developed world, Japan is subsidising its inefficient farmers. It’s just that in Japan, the subsidy per hectare is twelve times greater than that in Europe or the US. Bring import tariffs into the picture and you have a closed market in which consumers pay ten times more for their rice than in California.

Wealthy countries like Japan want it both ways. Everyone wants to be lord of the manor and no one the peasant. To use money to preserve the veneer of a mythical rural idyll and shelter farmers from the reality that commercial rice just doesn’t pay, well, that’s just one of the perks of being a first-world country. With an abundant flow of government money and gas to fire up the planting machines, who cares if the rain doesn’t fall?



Rice Growers in Japan

Guide To Oita & Beppu

Books on Japan

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