Japan’s Damaged Rice Culture

The 3.11 tsunami and radiation may have changed a system for good

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan have wrought havoc on the long-term prospects for the country's storied rice industry. let alone doing short-term damage, according to a report by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute.

The Great East Japan Earthquake, as it is known, is believed to have been the most powerful ever to have hit Japan, triggering a devastating tsunami that generated 40-meter waves, washing deep inland and causing meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Complex. Some 15,844 people were confirmed dead and 3,394 people have been listed as missing.

Although the disaster spurred evacuation of farmland in a 30-km radius around the nuclear plant, consumer confidence in domestic rice has fallen in a much larger area and cut into a system in which the country has heretofore been able to maintain the permanent sovereignty of its international agricultural trade policies and agreements, with high tariffs keeping Japanese farmers self-sustaining, according to the report.

United States trade representatives in particular have fought tenaciously to open Japanese agricultural markets to western producers, to little avail, claiming that Californian Japonica rice is actually tastier in addition to being cheaper. However, the Japanese government has blocked nearly all rice imports from countries like Thailand and Vietnam, now among the world's biggest producers, with the Japanese government paying farmers nearly four times the market value of their rice, then selling it into the food distribution system at a substantial loss. The system costs Japanese taxpayers nearly US$2 billion a year.

While urbanization, the drift of young people to the cities and other factors have caused the rice sector to shrink, rice-growing remains a revered cultural experience, with consumers and producers saying Japanese rice is special and different from any other species. Demographics play a grim role, however. According to one survey, more than half of all of Japan's rice farmers are over 65 years old. Nonetheless, families take pilgrimages back to the countryside in the autumn to participate in the rice harvest, which bears the hallmarks of a cultural event rather than an agricultural process. Although self-sufficiency been declining steadily since World War II, "the rice industry (except for the rice crisis) has remained at 100 percent," according to the report.

That may no longer be true.

The report quotes Jessica Harvey, a member of the Fukushima prefectural government office, as saying that the prefecture was already in financial difficulty before the 3.11 disaster and was in no shape to offer assistance to any farmers, rice farmers included. The sale of agricultural products, including rice and sake - rice wine - had been a significant source of financial income for the prefecture until now.

"With the devastation of consumer trust in the products, the local rice industry has been virtually destroyed," the report noted. The disaster affected three kinds of farmers: those in the 30-km no-entry zone, those who were dislocated because of the earthquake itself, and those far-removed from the situation but affected by concerns over radiation. on the part of Japan's normally risk-averse consumers.

Production remained largely ample. The region's rice stockpile, which previously had been maintained at 1.84 million metric tons, rose to 2. 1 million tons because consumers wouldn't buy it, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Actual damage inflicted on Japan’s rice industry as a whole, according to a representative of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations identified only as a Mr Fuji, was a miniscule 1 percent. Despite the massive earthquake, the tsunami, and damage from radiation from the Fukushima reactors, only 100,000 metric tons of rice were lost in all of the affected prefectures. Of the 23,000 hectares of agricultural land affected, 20,000 hectares were rice production areas.

The report quotes the cooperative association's Fuji as saying the most immediate effort by the rice industry, in cooperation with the governments of various levels, is the removal of salt from brine-damaged rice paddies affected by the tsunami. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has projected that the cleanup of agricultural land, reconstruction of paddy dikes, removal of debris, rubble and brine will take until 2014. Radiation from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear generating plant, however, is another question. Removing topsoil is a problem that the government has not yet addressed. While some farmers have returned to their properties, they do not have the funds to remove the contaminated soil and so far have not received any financial support from the government to be able to put in crops for 2012.

The report quotes Fuji as saying that "concerns about the future capacity for a steady rice supply were paled by the greater concern related to consumer confidence in future Tohoku rice products despite the fact that beyond the 30-km no-entry zone, successful rice growth because of effective brine removal in tsunami areas (spring 2011) also points to a productive 2012."

Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato said in a statement dated Oct. 12 that " “The agricultural products provided by Fukushima Prefecture are safe and fresh." The statement was followed by a long list of categorized cereal grains including rice and vegetable products produced in Fukushima that have passed tests for consumption and shipment, yet with numerous exceptions listed below each category. But consumers remain wary.

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