Japan faces 'rice question' Parties running scared on farm vote

July 26, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

ESASHI, Japan -- Mitoo Sato lives in a Japan you seldom read about.

His Japan doesn't flood the world with cars and microchips, doesn't need "pushers" in white socks using their feet to cram the last commuters onto rush-hour trains, doesn't demand that fathers spend their evenings drinking with office-mates and their weekends golfing with clients.

His Japan is about farming and rice -- and about being the last of a breed.

It is a place where people want to feel like good citizens but don't put much trust in politicians.

More than 70 percent of Esashi's farmers will vote today as Japan elects half the members of the upper house of the Diet, the national parliament, but nobody here talks politics without prompting.

Mr. Sato's Japan seems much farther from Tokyo than the 3 1/2 hours it takes to get here on a northbound bullet train.

About the time Tokyo commuters are transferring from the first of the two or three trains they typically ride to work, farmers here are finishing big, relaxed breakfasts with their wives.

An ordinary farmer's house is more than four times the size of a worker's apartment in suburban Tokyo, and about a third the price. Almost every family has a car. Nobody worries where to park.

As he talked with two visitors, Mr. Sato, 57, stood up to his ankles in a piece of Esashi he inherited from his father. It is a muddy rice paddy almost exactly the size and shape of an American football field. It is one of six he farms, each roughly the same size -- three handed down from his forefathers and three rented or borrowed from farmers who have given up.

In Tokyo, it is possible to believe the biggest issue in Japan's countryside is whether to give in to U.S. and European pressure and ease this country's ban on imported rice.

In today's election, all the major parties are running as scared as usual on the farm vote. All have renewed long-standing promises never to let a grain of foreign rice into Japan. Those promises have helped make "the rice question" one of the most inflammatory of the many trade disputes between Japan and the United States.

But in two days of asking farmers here and in two neighboring townships what was on their minds, not one brought up "the rice question."

"We are certain to be the last generation of rice farmers in this part of Japan," Mr. Sato said.

He wiped away the sweat where his light-blue baseball cap had been and thought a second about what he'd said. "If you want to know what people here really talk about when we get together, that's it."

Farmers talked about the weather (a bit too cool this year for a first-rate crop), about ways to consolidate land into bigger farms (no one really knows how) and, unceasingly, about their sons' flight from the land.

"The politicians all say the same thing," said Shoichi Sugawara, manager of the grain cooperative in neighboring Kanegasaki.

"And yet the farmers are already prepared in their hearts that this is the year the rice import ban will begin to die.

"They'll all vote Sunday, mostly for the LDP [the governing Liberal Democratic Party] as usual. They don't put much trust in politicians' promises, though."

Farmers here use the latest chemical fertilizers and pesticides and do their plowing with tractors. But they can't hide their pride when they tell you the real secret of their crops is something their fathers learned from their grandfathers. It is the ability to tend each shoot of rice individually with their own hands.

That kind of pride is a big part of what rice farming is about in Japan.

But raising rice stalk by stalk is possible only on farms the size of football fields. That makes maximum use of the land but no longer gives a farmer a living.

So this slower-paced Japan where rice is king is disappearing in a single generation.

"I just about broke even last year -- if you don't count anything for the labor my wife and I put into the land," said Iwao Takahashi, 70.

"The government was still subsidizing new farmlands here 23 years ago, but the next year they decided Japan had too much rice and reversed their policy," he said. "They asked us to take 20 percent of our land out of production."

His neighbor, Shoji Sato, 65, said, "There hasn't been a good year since we started setting land aside. . . . This year they increased the amount of land we have to 'rest' again. Now it's 30 percent."

Both men live on the earnings of sons who live at home but work in nearby factories.

"At least this is an election year," Mr. Sato said, and he and Mr. Takahashi broke into knowing laughs. "The government won't lower the price it pays for rice this year."

Farming, the two said, is the only work they know. If they stop, the life they inherited from their fathers dies and can never be revived. So they go on.

But not their sons, or the sons of any other farmer known to anyone interviewed.

"I don't know of any farmers under 40 or 50 years old," Mr. Takahashi said.

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