TOKYO -- Rice growers in Japan are eerily quiet about Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
Japan's restrictions on imports of rice are the remaining focal point of agricultural negotiations for the ambitious trade liberalization pact. Pork and beef trade talks have been virtually settled with tariff reductions.
The reserved stance of rice growers is considered enigmatic because the staple food is the "sanctuary of all sanctuaries" for Japanese agricultural products.
Hear no evil
Japan and the U.S. are reported to be at odds in rice trade talks. Tokyo has rejected Washington's demand for importing an additional 175,000 tons of U.S. rice under so-called "minimum access" quotas.
An increase in rice imports, even if it falls short of the U.S. demand, will have a big impact on the Japanese rice industry. In the past, agricultural cooperative officials and farmers staged fierce protests whenever there were talks on increasing rice imports.
Farmers are surprisingly quiet this time for two reasons.
The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, or JA-Zenchu, has exercised strong political pressure during precious discussions on rice imports. It mobilized farmers across the country. Although anti-TPP rallies have been sporadically held, they have had little influence on the overall situation.
"Our movement and pressure to date have been ignored by the administration" of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said a former leader of a national agricultural cooperative organization.
Although growers are concerned about a possible increase in rice imports, they feel hopeless. JA-Zenchu has lost its political clout.
The second, and more important, reason for a sense of abandonment is plunging rice prices.
Rice prices have almost halved over the past two decades. Given Japan's dwindling population, furthermore, demand for the staple will undoubtedly decline. It is impossible to see how much further prices will fall.
A majority of rice growers in Japan have nonagricultural income sources. A large number of farmers used to portray rice cultivation as a loss-maker by booking wages to family members and depreciation expenses for equipment. But now, it actually is in the red because of steep falls in rice prices.
Farmers grow rice increasingly for noneconomic reasons such as personal consumption, health and to pass on paddies to future generations.
Few farmers believe they can make a living by growing rice alone. Adding to the problem, most rice growers are elderly.
Rice trade talks are by no means immune to political influence. When TPP talks looked near to conclusion, lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party from agricultural constituencies raised opposition to increasing minimum access quotas for rice.
Political support for rice cultivation leads to the protection of farmers with nonagricultural income sources. Farmers moonlighting once prevented Japan's urban-rural divide from widening. They contributed to social stability during Japan's high-growth years. But most failed to find successors for their farms, and instead relied on subsidies to stay afloat.
Within a few years, these protected farmers will begin retiring. Political support, therefore, should focus on farmers trying to generate profits from rice and other agricultural products.
Moves that act as a drag on full-time farmers seeking to expand operations, such as the income compensation program introduced by the Democratic Party of Japan while in government, should be avoided.