In small wet rice fields, or suiden, across Japan, farmers don rubber boots to slosh through the fields and check their plantings. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in tropical Hawaii, negotiators are in the final stages of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that farmers fear will disrupt the rhythm of their even-metered life.
Rice is one of the five sacred areas of Japanese agriculture (with pork and beef, wheat, barley and sugarcane). To many, especially those living in rural areas, it remains the primary ingredient of the Japanese identity. As one farmer here said, “without rice, there is no Japan; the culture is a rice culture, it is the most basic element.”
Japan’s rice farmers have long been the backbone of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. But lately, as their numbers dwindle along with a declining population and demand for rice, this key cultural constituency seems to have lost the strength it once had to demand the government’s support.
There are now around 2 million rice farmers in Japan, down from 4 million in 1990 and as many as 12 million in 1960. Some farm part-time, while for others it’s their entire livelihood and passion.
Japanese negotiators in Maui, who only a few months ago seemed intent on protecting rice growers by maintaining current import quotas, appear to be bending to American pressure in exchange for allowing more Japanese autos into the US. The tit for tat of trade negotiations, along with the geopolitics of countering China, now threatens this ancient way of life.
I recently spent part of the summer doing fieldwork in Japan and discussing this issue with rice farmers and others in the agriculture industry to learn how the TPP will affect them.
“I’m a simple man. I love farming and just want to farm,” a rice grower in Toyama prefecture told me. “Foreign rice is a problem. I’m worried about the TPP and the future of these fields.”