The Price of Rice in Japan
Posted on 08 June 2016
by David Hill
I have a little produce stand next to my house. The guy who runs it is a really good friend of mine. I’ve told a lot of stories about him. How he might have saved me from a car accident with strange astrology. How he’s given me the smartest goldfish I’ve ever known. How he told me about how Ultraman is his god.
I have a less inspiring story to tell about him today.
Right now, he’s concerned. This is a guy who is so painfully optimistic, so bright, so warm. And he’s worried.
He’s in his late 60s. He lives with his parents, who are both in their 90s. They have a little produce stand, and a small farm with a rice field and some other assorted vegetables. It’s spread out over about four plots of land in our city, all about the size of your average home and yard, all within walking distance. His parents’ parents owned this land. It’s been in their family for over a century. He proudly tells me that his grandfather was the first person in Japan to cultivate strawberries – our prefecture is well-known for its amazing strawberries. When his family first started growing rice in this city, rice was still being used as a form of currency.
The three of them work the farm. Just Saturday, I saw his 93 year old mother in that rice field, knee-deep in muddy water, making rice happen. I couldn’t do that at 34. I cannot imagine doing it at 93. But she loves it. She says she loves the field, loves the rice, and loves making food for the community.
If you picture the volume of produce they actually make, and compare it to your average co-op in a Western nation, you could imagine that it’s a relatively small amount. But it’s a comfortable life for them; they make enough money to pay for their land and their needs. They’re comfortable enough that every month, he goes out and picks potatoes to give his neighbors for free.
Small farms are a big deal in Japan. Not everything’s been consumed by massive agriculture business. When I walk down the street, there are vending machines that clean rice. The local farmers take their haul, put it in the machine, and it comes out white. These vending machines mean that the local farmers don’t need to own massive, expensive equipment that they won’t really use that often.
They can do this because Japan has rigid laws in place to protect rice farmers. You’d think that if rice is grown a block from my house, it should be the cheapest available. It’s not. In fact, rice from the United States is actually cheaper. Chinese rice is also, so is Vietnamese rice and others’. But Japan has laws that strictly limit export rice, that way Japanese rice farmers can’t be undercut by foreign markets. If you don’t live here, you might assume rice is cheap because it’s a staple of everyday mealtime. It’s not cheap. We pay for it, and it supports the massive number of Japanese rice farmers.
Right now, he’s concerned because of the TPP. You hear some stuff about it, how it’s the “gold standard” in trade deals, how it will hurt American jobs, how it’ll force Canada into uncomfortable trade, how it’ll… Whatever. But one thing it does is disintegrate many of those protective rice laws. This will introduce rice into the market at immensely low costs, pricing out Japanese rice farmers. They’ll have to lower their prices to match – and thus eating massive amounts of their working class revenue – or they’ll have to go out of business. In many cases, this means neighborhood farmers selling out to bigger business with lower overhead and greater economy of scale.
This isn’t even just an issue of removing limitations: The TPP literally requires Japan to import massive amounts of rice from the United States, the required amount of which will increase every year for a decade. This rice will be imported tariff-free. He showed me the differences, and essentially it’s a matter of rice that could be sold at less than half the price of their locally grown rice.
The thing I tend to hear when corporatist trade deals destroy local business is that the displaced workers should just find other work. They can’t. These are 90+ year olds, and a 60+ year old, who are just working to maintain long-standing family land and use farming as a way to connect with their community. They can’t just go work at Walmart. This isn’t just a job for them. This is their life.
He doesn’t think they’ll be able to keep their farm for long. He says they’ll try. He says they’ll probably keep trying well after it’s no longer viable, because they love that land.
Japan will take care of him. Japan will take care of them. They have pension. They’re not going to starve or go homeless. But they’re not going to have a farm. They’re going to lose property that’s been in their family for over a century. They’re going to lose land that gave them beautiful stories about strawberries. They’re going to lose land that lets them give fresh potatoes to the neighbors.
I hope this can help put a face on the cost of these corporatist trade deals. When the US has a Secretary Of State aggressively lobbying Congress behind closed doors, it’s not just a political debate. It’s people’s lives and livelihoods at stake. And it’s not just localized – these trade deals hit people all over the world. These trade deals are the cornerstone of trickle-up economics; we destroy the small businesses, the individuals scraping to get by, in order to consolidate power in the hands of the unbelievably wealthy.