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Renegade Farmers : Japan Rice System Faces a Challenge

February 15, 1988|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

OGATA-MURA, Japan — When the history of the next rice revolution in Japan is written, it may be recorded that the first shots were fired in this place.

"What's wrong with raising rice where the land is most suitable for it?" asked Toshiko Shikama, looking out over 27,000 acres of paddy field awaiting the spring planting under a cover of snow, the largest such expanse in Japan.

The young rice farmer's remark may not have the ring of a clarion call, but it is stirring emotions in this distant northern corner of Honshu, and around Japan.

Because of his insistence on planting all of his alloted 37 acres of paddy with rice, Shikama and the members of 219 farming families like his have been ostracized by the rest of this model cooperative farm, where they have lived for 20 years.

Denied Community Loans

They have been denied community loans for machinery and supplies and forced to build their own storage and milling facilities.

"People think they are morally bad farmers," said village Mayor Seiki Miyata, who shares that view.

The reason has much to do with Japan's deeply cherished image of the rice village as a model of spiritual communality, where decisions made for personal gain but to the village's disadvantage are considered reprehensible.

It has even more to do with Japan's fragile food control system, established in 1932 to protect the nation's hopelessly inefficient small farms from extinction.

Today, the system costs Japanese taxpayers $6 billion in price supports for rice farmers alone--not to mention the expense to consumers forced to pay 5 to 10 times the world market price of rice at retail.

Painful Political Problems

In many ways, the food control system makes no economic sense. It discourages farm innovation and consolidation of small plots. It keeps consumer prices high and drains government revenues. Increasingly, Japan's refusal to open its markets to wider imports of rice, as well as beef and citrus fruits and a number of other agricultural commodities, is causing painful political problems internationally. (Wrangling has already begun over a U.S.-Japan trade agreement on beef and citrus that expires next month.)

But as the events unfolding at Ogata-Mura suggest, many in Japan, including agricultural bureaucrats, farmers, and even some consumers, think the system is a small price to pay for a feeling of confidence that, come what may and whatever the cost, Japan will always be able to produce enough rice to feed itself.

Ogata-Mura's basic problem is that it is too successful. Opened in 1965 on 27,000 acres of sludgy clay reclaimed from the nation's second-largest lake, the community was settled by about 500 farm families hand-picked from all over Japan and allotted paddies more than 10 times larger than the national average. The idea was to show that by farming on a large scale, Japan could cut costs enough to make its agriculture world-competitive.

In that sense, Ogata-Mura's planners got what they wanted. The village's rice production and cost per acre come closer than anywhere else in the country to that of farmland in the United States.

But the agricultural triumph has been a social and political fiasco. For along with the nation's best rice yield has come an ugly fight over how much rice to plant and how much to charge for it.

Disregarding Orders

Having tasted the wealth that comes from efficient farming, many families here have simply begun to disregard government orders, designed to avert a rice glut, to take as much as 30% of their land out of rice production. What the government refuses to buy, they sell illegally on the black market.

They make more money from black market sales because in circumventing government-approved distribution channels, they pay fewer middlemen. So now 220 of Ogata-Mura's 589 households are violating the quotas, and more are likely to join them during this year's planting season.

In the United States, this might be viewed as a gratifying illustration of free-market mechanics. But the image of hundreds of farmers getting rich from the black market, and violating a community consensus to boot, has been deeply disturbing to the Japanese agricultural community.

"Other farmers in this district especially resent seeing those people getting rich by violating the law," said Toshimi Fukushima, the local government official responsible for enforcing the quotas. "The small-scale farmers around here have a harder time making ends meet, and yet they're cooperating. We can't change the rules just for big farmers."

Just Seeking Own Profit

"These are people who are only seeking their own profit," said Mayor Miyata. "We think they should all cooperate for the greater good of the village."

Especially infuriating to the maverick farmers' critics is that the traditional disciplinary mechanisms of farm-village life--threats of ostracism and so on--do not function in such an artificially settled and cosmopolitan community as Ogata-Mura.

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