TOKYO — The Japanese government is about to plug a tiny leak that has let California rice into one of the world's most protected agricultural markets at the rate of about 20 tons a year.
Effective Monday, Japanese customs authorities will no longer permit Japanese sailors to bring home California rice. Depending on the port of entry, Japanese sailors have been permitted to bring home from every voyage between 30 and 100 kilograms--about 66 to 220 pounds--of foreign rice.
Hideo Taira, director of the Oceangoing Division of the All-Japan Seamen's Union, wrote in a scathing letter to the national daily Asahi Shimbun: "Many sailors eagerly bring home California rice because its taste appeals to the Japanese."
Taira called the restrictions on rice imports "grotesque . . . in an age of open international contact," and went on: "The sailors know how delicious California rice tastes when used for sushi, and as professional shippers they are well aware of the thick and high walls that have been erected to keep out foreign rice."
In May, the government's Food Agency, the sole authority allowed to trade in rice, decreed that the regulation was a misinterpretation of a law that permits passengers on seagoing vessels to bring home up to 100 kilos of rice.
"The sailors are not passengers," a Food Agency official said. "It was a mistake to let them bring in the rice."
The decision by the Food Agency to close the loophole means that all Japanese, even sailors, will have to buy rice on the domestic market, where prices are up to six times higher than in California.
Claims Agency Was Unaware of Loophole
The agency official emphasized that it is necessary to enforce the law equally. He said the agency had not been aware that customs officials were permitting sailors to bring in American rice.
"We first heard of the rice imports earlier this year when a sailor asked why in some ports he was allowed to bring in 30 kilos and in others, 100," the official said. "It was then that we decided we had to enforce the law."
Taira disputes this version. He said the loophole came to the agency's notice when rice dealers at the ports where sailors had brought in California rice complained. He also says he sees Japan's powerful farm lobby at work behind the decision. Food Agency officials insist that this is not so.
In the meantime, the sailors have found at least one ally. The Diamond, a weekly business magazine, concluded in the current issue that "a country committed to free trade ought to promote the import of cheap and delicious rice."
The Diamond found that the Food Agency last year turned down the application of a Japanese ship chandler who wanted to bring in California rice, store it in bonded warehouses and sell it to ships bound for foreign ports for the sailors to eat during the voyage. The ship chandler is suing the government in an effort to have the ruling overturned. A Food Agency spokesman said the chandler's application was turned down "because we could not be sure that the rice would not enter the domestic market illegally."
Although no accurate figures are available on how much California rice sailors have been bringing in, a seamen's union official put the volume at less than 22 tons a year. This year, the Japanese rice harvest is estimated at 11 million tons, and there is expected to be a 1-million-ton surplus.
It is for this reason that rice imports are considered unacceptable. Although rice is a staple food in Japan, consumption is declining rapidly as the Japanese experiment with a variety of Western foods, ranging from hamburgers to the nouvelle cuisine of France.
Between 1960 and 1976, the latest period for which statistics are available, per-capita consumption of rice in Japan declined by more than 25%; over the past 80 years, it has been cut in half. As a result of the drop, Japan had rice surpluses of up to 7 million tons a year during the mid-1970s.
This year, the government will spend the equivalent of more than $150 million on an incentive program to get farmers to grow less rice.
Farm Lobby Has Great Influence in Parliament
But despite the fall in demand, the government is obligated for political reasons to buy all of the rice that farmers want to sell--and at prices high enough to maintain a standard of living on the farm equal to that in the cities. For although Japan's 4.5 million farm families account for only about 16% of the population, they have a strong influence on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party because of the way seats in Parliament are distributed.
Earlier this year, the government announced, for the first time in 30 years, that it intended to lower the rice subsidy. The price paid to the farmer was to be cut by about 6%. But not long afterward the government revised the figure to just under 4%. Then the subsidy was restored to last year's level.