Japan shows signs of easing rice-import ban Fading of mystique puts farm lobby on defensive

October 21, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO — Tokyo--For centuries, the Daijosai -- the Great Rice Offering Ritual -- made living gods of Japan's emperors.

The ceremony will have the same name and the same rice-centered rituals when Emperor Akihito symbolically lies down with Amaterasu, the sun goddess, next month, but the government won't tell anyone it has turned him into anything but what the constitution says he is -- the living symbol of the %J Japanese nation.

The change in the emperor's accession ritual is one measure of how far rice, for centuries the intersection of the mysteries of Japan's Shinto religion and the earthly needs of its people, has begun to lose some of its mystique.

For Japan's trading partners, who have felt that they faced more than a few mysteries in decades of attempts to breach the country's near total ban on imported rice, the fading mystique is one of several hopeful signs that the Japanese government may yet make just enough last-minute concessions to avoid the stigma of thwarting the biggest attempt to expand world trade in three decades.

"The question no longer is whether, but when, Japan will lift thimport ban, over what period of time and what impact imported rice will have on Japanese agriculture," the magazine Tokyo Business Today says in its October issue.

The rice magic is fading not only in rituals but even in politicswhere Japan's still-powerful farm lobby finds itself increasingly on the defensive as it fights to preserve the import ban.

Since summer, powerful interest groups and conservativpoliticians have stepped forward one at a time with statements seemingly calculated to prepare the public for some kind of relaxation.

The interest groups have included Keidanren, the powerfubusinessmen's association without whose backing little gets done in the politics surrounding Japan's economy.

Politicians who have expressed a willingness to contemplatsome easing of the ban have included at least one prominent member in each of four of the governing Liberal Democratic Party's key factions.

The country's second-biggest opposition, the Clean Governmenparty, or Komeito, has officially called for a "rethinking" of the ban as part of a reorganization of the country's agricultural policy.

Those changes of opinion seemed unthinkable as recently aSeptember 1989, when every party in the Diet, Japan's parliament, joined in support of resolutions opposing rice imports.

The resolutions were prompted in part by the beating LDcandidates had taken two months earlier in an Upper House election at the hands of rural voters incensed over Tokyo's concessions to Washington on citrus and beef imports.

By then, however, the handwriting may already have been on the wall.

Two years earlier, trying to buy time against already-mountinU.S. pressure to ease the foreign-rice ban, Japan proposed that the issue be taken out of the bilateral context and made part of the Uruguay round of negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Almost from the day he took office in 1989, President Bush madthe Uruguay round one of the top priorities of his administration, and Washington has kept up the pressure to get an agreement even while public attention has been diverted by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and the recurring U.S. budget fiascoes.

"I would be frankly shocked if the government of Japan was nowilling to participate in agricultural reform and thereby caused the Uruguay Round to fail," Carla A. Hills, the U.S. trade representative, said last week.

She specified that the United States wants to see foreign ricobtain a 6 percent share of Japan's 10-million-ton-a-year market over the next 10 years.

Her remarks grew out of a major change in the U.S. negotiatinposition, in which Washington proposed last month that all agricultural protection laws and policies be converted into protective tariffs, which then could be reduced gradually.

A key purpose for the U.S. proposal was to ease the economic and political impact of the proposed liberalization in many countries.

In recent months, the LDP has spoken not of preserving the babut of a determination to base agricultural policy on "self-sufficiency" in rice production.

Some Japanese say that wording was chosen because allowinforeigners to provide a few hundred thousand tons a year could still be reconciled with a basic policy of "self-sufficiency."

The four years of the Uruguay round of trade talks among 10countries reach their deadline Dec. 3-7, when the final sessions are scheduled in Brussels, Belgium. Japanese negotiators have suggested a six-month extension, but no other big trading country has supported that idea.

European and Japanese refusals to speed up agricultural reforare the biggest remaining stumbling blocks to the substantial further opening of world trade that negotiators have sought.

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