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Losing the Fruits of Their Labor

Farmers in Japan, who take pride in the quality and variety of their produce, are seeing an increase in crop thefts.

October 12, 2003|Colin Joyce | Special to The Times

IWAMA, Japan — The minute Shinichiro Hasegawa, 82, opened his storehouse he knew that he had been robbed. The empty space was a silent witness to the theft -- of 550 pounds of chestnuts.

It may not sound like the crime of the century, but in Japan -- where grapes can cost $60 a bunch, pears $3 each and a musk melon as much as $90 -- the growing number of produce rustlers has shocked this usually low-crime society.

The thieves clearly knew what they were doing. They took only the polished chestnuts that were ready for sale and left the rest. Hasegawa and his wife, Kimi, had spent seven backbreaking hours gathering the chestnuts.

"Right across Japan, there have been thefts of everything from rice to fruits," Hasegawa said. "Even in this area, there have been two cases of stolen pears and grapes. But we never even imagined they would take our chestnuts because they are hardly worth anything.

"Anyone would feel bitter," Hasegawa said. "We lost only about $450, but we needed it to supplement our meager pensions. It's not that I want to be working in a field at my age."

The thieves also took a 5-gallon canister of gas, prompting Hasegawa to guess that they may be driving their haul from his farm in the small town of Iwama, in rural Ibaraki prefecture, to Tokyo, three hours away.

Japanese farmers pride themselves on the amazing variety of exotic fruits and vegetables they grow. For example, each grapevine has its own character. One may have a strange shape but bear sweet grapes. Another may have ideal color. The more delicate and the more attention the plant requires, the better.

This often means that losses from theft can be as much personal as financial.

"When you raise good fruit, it's a pleasure just to pick it. It becomes like your child," said Masahiko Obayashi, a 56-year-old grape farmer.

"Between mid-May and mid-July, I go out to the vineyard at 5 a.m. and work for 14 hours, even having breakfast there. To work so hard to produce grapes and have them disappear one night is an incredible disappointment. You don't know what to do with the anger," Obayashi said.

The Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, has been the scene of about a hundred such thefts this year, triple the rate of 2002. Nationally, there were 480 cases through August, the latest month for which figures are available, with losses of about $500,000. Fewer than 5% of the cases are solved.

The crime wave has further shaken Japan's vision of itself as a safe country. Although city dwellers have become accustomed to a certain level of crime during the decade-long recession, rural residents have remained largely unaffected. Most farmers have no insurance against theft, and many farmers do not even lock their storehouses.

The plague of thefts has come on top of a freakishly cold and rainy summer that has pushed up produce prices and sparked fears of shortages, especially of rice. This seems to have made crops an even more tempting target for thieves.

This month, police in Hyogo, in western Japan, reported that more than $3,000 of koshi hikari rice, a high-quality strain, had been stolen from an elderly farmer.

Obayashi, who is head of a local grape farmers' association in Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo, started crime patrols after his crop was stolen a few years ago. He has watched with alarm as crop theft has rocketed this year.

"This is organized crime," he said. "The scale of the crop thefts means they must be heading for the market via some underground channel. It is also professional. In Yamagata, they even knew how to cut cherries from the trees leaving the stalk on, which is crucial to the sale value."

The farmers patrol two nights a week during the harvest season as well as keeping watch for suspicious cars. The area is posted with signs declaring: "Grape theft will send you to jail for up to 10 years. Please don't screw up your life."

One farmer in the same town as Hasegawa has improvised a security system on his pear and chestnut farm that uses sensors to set off radios when movement is detected. More traditional farmers in Tsuchiura, in Ibaraki prefecture, have bought lucky charms from the nearby Atago shrine to ward off theft.

In Yamanashi prefecture, in eastern Japan, police have begun to patrol vineyards with dogs. "We are hoping that the dogs can sniff out any criminals hiding in a field," said Shigehide Saito, press officer with Yamanashi police.

"With the bad weather it has been such a hard year for farmers, and for them to put all that effort in and have their crop carried off just before harvest is sad and infuriating. The farmer must really hate the thieves," Saito said.

"Even if it is just the theft of a few bunches of grapes and the farmer isn't in danger of losing his livelihood, from an emotional point of view it is still unforgivable."

Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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