TOKYO -- Terrible weather and a changing political climate have finally forced Japan to do something unthinkable and possibly unpardonable.
They're going to import rice.
Today the Agriculture Ministry will release data widely expected to show that this year's crop of the country's most fundamental staple was the worst since World War II. According to reports in the Japanese news media last night, the government will announce that, as a result of the wretched harvest, laws prohibiting rice imports will be relaxed for the first time since 1984 when a small, emergency, reciprocal purchase agreement was arranged with Korea.
This time the imports may exceed a million metric tons, or close to 10 percent of the country's annual consumption, and have serious political implications.
A major beneficiary is reported to be the United States, which has long objected to the closed rice market. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics indicate that President Clinton's home state of Arkansas, as well as California and Louisiana, are the three largest U.S. producers of the most highly sought-after medium-grain variety.
Australia, China, Thailand and Vietnam are also said to be possible sources of rice shipments.
A wet season
Expectations that Japan would be forced to modify its controversial ban on rice imports have been growing for months. In June and July the weather was cooler and wetter than normal, and then last month the country was hit by one typhoon after another.
Kohki Sakashita, a farmer in western Japan, said that typically the rice shoots would contain 15 gold or light green grains by late summer, but this year as many as a third were dark brown, verging on black, because of rot and disease from the excess moisture.
As the weather was making the ban increasingly impractical, political support was waning. The overtly closed market had become an embarrassing symbol of Japan's efforts to keep its markets closed at a time when its economy depends on an export-oriented strategy to open markets elsewhere.
The new political administration of Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa that came into power this summer questioned the wisdom of this policy and seemed to lean toward its abandonment.
Yet several times the government has seemed to backtrack at the last moment, underscoring the sensitivity of the subject. Agriculture is one of the few areas in which Japan runs a large trade deficit, and the country's inability to feed itself prompts constant concern over self-sufficiency. Almost 90 percent of Japan's wheat is imported, as well as a large share of its meat and fruit. From the U.S. alone, it imports almost $12 billion in food annually and exports back only $280 million worth of food.
'Rice is our culture'
There is no product in the United States that appears to hold the same position as that held by rice in Japan.
"Rice is our culture," said Komei Nakajima, director of agricultural research at the Japan External Trade Organization.
The word for cooked rice, "gohan," is the same as the word for food. In an ordinary meal, it is eaten directly, as well as ingested in the form of soup ("miso") and liquor ("sake").
As a paste, it is used in the dying process for kimonos, and its shaft forms the fiber for the tatami mats covering the floor of the traditional Japanese home.
In late spring, at the festival Otaue, the emperor officially begins the planting season by transplanting a baby rice stalk into his private, baseball-diamond-sized field inside the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds in downtown Tokyo.
The event is given extensive coverage in the news media.
To protect the rice crop, the government controls the channels of distribution and, to a large degree, the price. These kinds of controls have led to inefficiency. Rice is six times more expensive here than in the United States, and recent auctions for the small amount allowed to be sold on the free market suggest that the price might go far higher still.
The average plot size is little bigger than a football field, and plots are often far smaller, squeezed between homes and buildings, making them awkward to till and harvest.
Japanese consumers have willingly tolerated high prices for other goods, but in a highly unusual development, there have been reports of black markets emerging in rice.
Isonobu Kawasaki, a rice retailer in Toyoma prefecture, directly across Japan from Tokyo, has become a national celebrity by openly flaunting official prices and distribution channels.
He was indicted in March for selling rice without permission, according to the Mainichi Daily News, but has recently begun selling again from a truck brazenly bearing a sign for "yami-mai," translated as dark or hidden rice.
An even greater danger to the domestic market, however, comes from the high prices paid for real estate, even now in the midst of a protracted recession. The number of acres under cultivation has declined. Small-scale rice farming can be back-aching work, and there are easier ways to make money.
"The younger generation doesn't want to do farming," said Shizulo Shinbo, and neither did she. Two years ago she transformed a small field in Ishikawa prefecture, west of Toyama on the Japan sea, into a parking lot. Every month, she says, she makes more from the property than she did in a year of rice harvests.