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Grain pain: Japan's aging rice farmers face uncertain future

37 Comments
By Natsuko Fukue

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Japanese rice has fallen out of favor with younger, Westernised consumers

"Westernised"? I thought Japan was a homogeneous nation with a strong and unique culture. Perhaps with the advent of choice, the people are speaking.

12 ( +17 / -5 )

JA (Nokyou) run the rice market with the LDP, who ensure the farmer's rural vote is worth more than an urban vote. From selling chemicals to farmers to support the relatively weak Japanese rice, then buying back the same rice, and selling it onwards. Farmers who try to go it alone risk being blackballed by the local unions/JA and are unable to get help to harvest their rice.

17 ( +17 / -0 )

I went 'old skool' with rice. We have a Hitachi automatic rice cooker but in the last four years have old been cooking rice in the old traditional brown ceramic, two lid pots on the gas stove, 4 cups of rice at time. Rice tastes much better, there's no doubt about it. Also, when I am in Canada, I bring a couple of 5kgs bags of Japanese rice with me since there is nothing in California or elsewhere in North America that comes close to the quality of Japanese rice. Younger people I find simply want instant gratification for just about everything. They simply don't want to put in the work. I wonder if the Japanese could market the old ways to the 'hipster' crowd and boost their sales in rice and stoneware?

-18 ( +3 / -21 )

Stop farming it, start importing it, drop the tariff on imported rice, and stop pegging the price of other carbs like wheat and pasta to the high price of Japan rice. The LDP no longer needs to rely on the limited number of votes that superannuated farmers once provided. Costco has Thai rice, Indica rice and Jasmine rice, all of which are better in risotto, pilaf and other Western dishes. They also sell 3kg bags of Yamagata genmai for 1100 yen, for times when you need it.

15 ( +20 / -5 )

there is nothing in California or elsewhere in North America that comes close to the quality of Japanese rice

Really? In the UK, I can choose from about five brands of "Japanese style" rice at the nearest Asian supermarket. Three of the brands are produced in the USA. I'm no rice gourmet, but the Japanese I know here seem to have no problem with it. (The brand called Nishiki appears to be the most popular.) The typical price is about ¥300-350 per kg when buying a 10kg bag.

14 ( +18 / -4 )

 rice has fallen out of favor with younger, Westernised consumers

They just vant can’t resist a little dig at foreign culture. It’s nearly 2020, not 1920. Japan really has to join the rest of the world. It’s already being left behind.

Japanese rice farmers run on a protectionistic price fixing system. They actually get paid not to grow rice. I’m surprised the younger generation of lazy parasites are not jumping in the chance to get paid for doing nothing.

8 ( +13 / -5 )

The Oguras have managed to stay competitive so far by joining forces with two other families to farm around 100 hectares of rice fields -- nearly 100 times the size of the average plot.

They sell their rice -- which belongs to the leading Koshihikari variety -- at 300 yen per kilogram.

That's the answer right there. All the old farmer's die out or retire and their plots are combined to produce something "nearly 100 times the size of the average plot" that can be farmed profitably by, get this, three families. Not one hundred families, three families.

15 ( +16 / -1 )

Give people a choice and see what they actually want, the market is the best allocator of resources provided ignorant politicians don’t interfere.

This is no different than what has happened all over the world, tiny bits of land are simply uneconomic. Growing rice in mountainous areas was a necessity as the infrastructure couldn’t support the import and distribution of material but the world and Japan have moved on. Use the land for something else more economic and stop wasting tax payers money for partisan political advantage.

14 ( +14 / -0 )

Fewer Japanese people are eating rice in general, with annual per capita consumption dropping to 54.6 kilograms in 2015, less than half of its 1963 peak of 118.3 kilograms, according to the farm ministry.

Japanese scientists have shown that replacing it with more of the Standard American Diet and greater meat consumption is linked to receiving Western diseases as well

-4 ( +5 / -9 )

Yup, time to blame those "Westernized" consumers instead of the farmers who can't adapt in spite of unprecedented protectionist measures.

20 ( +22 / -2 )

In the UK, I can choose from about five brands of "Japanese style" rice at the nearest Asian supermarket. Three of the brands are produced in the USA. I'm no rice gourmet, but the Japanese I know here seem to have no problem with it. (The brand called Nishiki appears to be the most popular.) The typical price is about ¥300-350 per kg when buying a 10kg bag.

Exactly. There is quite a lot of quality Japanese-style rice grown in California. The California-grown Nishiki, Tamaki, and Kokuho brands are extremely popular with the Japanese residents who shop at the Japanese markets in the Silicon Valley area.

In Japan, there are too many brands to keep track. We don't have a particular favorite brand. But, we tend to choose the Akita Komachi variety, which my wife prefers.

We like our automatic rice cooker. I can't imagine having to keep an eye on a pot on the stove, and getting the flame just right. Our Panasonic cooker has a super heavy pot, uses IH so the whole pot heats evenly, and, most importantly, makes perfect rice. All at the push of a button.

11 ( +12 / -1 )

Yup, time to blame those "Westernized" consumers instead of the farmers who can't adapt in spite of unprecedented protectionist measures.

Those damn millennials are killing another industry! ;-)

14 ( +15 / -1 )

I think younger people see rice simply as a lot of calories in carbohydrates, so they avoid it. Instead, they eat toufu for the filler because it is protein and more healthy.

8 ( +12 / -4 )

Have any of you here taken a long railway journey here and seen anything else growing the fields but rice? It's out there but blink and you'll miss it. That land will also now be unproductive until March. Why not fund grazing of cattle instead and reduce the cost and need to import beef for instance?

5 ( +7 / -2 )

I think younger people see rice simply as a lot of calories in carbohydrates, so they avoid it. Instead, they eat toufu for the filler because it is protein and more healthy

Would that be the plain version or deep fried?

Where can you buy basmati rice or thai rice or any other kind of rice in Japan?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Too much different snacks everywhere. I personally love rice,but is too much of a hassle to cook some dishes to eat with the rice. There just too many other foods out there that are cheap and easy to make or eat. Not very healthy ones, but still attractive to buy. Sad to see the rice culture is dying out.

Maybe i should start eating more rice. I do miss tamago gohan. These days i just eat sandwiches as breakfast.

But i dissagree with that they should be more competitiveness. No way they can compete with other food out there. They are rice farmers. How more competitive can they be?

-11 ( +1 / -12 )

I was never a fan of Japanese rice, I think it is a bit bland and too soft. But it goes well with Japanese food, so what the heck. We prefer Thai jasmine rice over Japanese. It is more versatile, far better with curries, and makes better fried rice too.

IMHO, rice farmers here need to get into the 21st century. I think they could make bank if they marketed their product overseas, especially in China. They could charge a premium for "genuine Japanese rice" and the burgeoning middle class there would buy tons of it. All they need is a good marketing strategy and some courage. Depending on the domestic market is a slow road to death.

11 ( +14 / -3 )

We prefer Thai jasmine rice over Japanese. It is more versatile, far better with curries, and makes better fried rice too.

Same here. Basmati or Jasmine rice is also much better for rice salads (j rice is too sticky).

But i dissagree with that they should be more competitiveness. No way they can compete with other food out there. They are rice farmers. How more competitive can they be?

How about allowing overseas rice producers to market their product in japan? J farmers currently have a monopoly on rice; let consumers decide what they want i.e j rice for sushi and other j foods, foreign rice (which happens to be much, much cheaper btw) with other types of foods/cuisines.

Pretty sure many J consumers wouldn't mind that either. (every time i tell them a kg of rice starts at about 100-120 yen overseas they're 'eehhh').

8 ( +9 / -1 )

"I was the only one out of 220 students at my local school who went into farming," Yuichi said. "There are not many people in their 20s who go into farming."

Same here in Aus. The average of farmers here is well into the 60's. Its a shame but its a tough life, particularly when drought in Aus is typical and devastating....

"Machines get more expensive every year. To replace them requires a certain level of profit but that's difficult when you are farming a small plot," Yuichi said.

And when bad times hit, the crippling loans to buy that equipment get even more crippling. Farmers these days need huge plots and a head for business and agricultural science. Not to mention a sixth sense on what the weather might do.

Japan could solve the age problem by importing people from Thailand and Vietnam, but the consumption problem possibly can't be solved. Best to look into other suitable crops.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

In my area of Kumamoto, bamboo continues to encroach on abandoned paddies. As the irrigation systems deteriorate, it becomes increasingly clear that they will not return - there's no one willing to work them, anyway. Somehow, observing nature reclaim human land is beautiful.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

In the production of any item you have to adapt to the market. That is the unfortunate reality for Japanese rice growers.

I agree that where possible larger scale farming by fewer is the way to go. Hopefully this will reduce costs and will in turn result in cheaper prices for the consumer, a win for everyone.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

More gunmai please on those hundreds of thousands of hectares of deserted farmland, even if it is just brown rice paste. Not so much because of the gluten free aspect, although it could be sold that way, but because it is brimming with nutrients and will help fight against against aging and diabetes.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Typical, polished white rice isn't particularly good for you and if people are eating less of it that's probably a good thing, unless they are substituting it with burgers and other rubbish.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Well, i do love japanese rice, all of them. Really, however, its really expensive when you have a big family or when you eat a LOT.

That's the reason i went for foreigner rice (Thai, Brazilian, Philippine or wherever), it doesn't taste the same and the texture is really different, but, it's half of the price or even less, therefore, you can buy twice the amount.

And in times like these, when taxes are abundant and always on the raise, salaries low and raises are scarce. You have to adapt yourself to the new conditions every day.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I am lucky enough to live in the Spanish region of Valencia. Where the famous Valencian Paella originates. And the main rice producing area in my country. And I can say from experience that the cultivation of rice is unfortunately not economically profitable. The production costs exceed the income obtained. And young people are not interested in working in this crop because of that. It's not something that happens exclusively in Japan. It also happens here.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I like Japanese rice.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@factchecker Good post. In preparation of free trade Japan has been weening farmers off of the government teat. Subsidies and incentives to grow rice are being reined in. 2018 is the 4th consecutive year that rice production has not exceeded demand. Farmers are growing a lot more soybeans. In Kyushu beans are now suddenly 30% of crop land. It doesn't take a very long train ride to appreciate the variety of food and ingredients produced in Japan. Maybe you are unsure of what you are seeing. Keep your eye out for tea plantations and vegetable fields. Japan produces a lot of fruit but usually at higher elevations that you would not see from a train. Trains tend to travel through the plains which are best suited for grain production. Winter wheat production is increasing and the fields are typically double cropped with rice being planted after wheat harvest. I do not foresee much of an increase in cereal production because it is impossible for Japan to compete on quality or price because of the climate. Japan can grow feed wheat or barley but those are low value crops that can be imported easily and cheaply. Higher value crops such as winter rapeseed would do well in Japan and fit nicely into a double cropping system.

Your question as to why Japanese farmers do not grow a forage crop for grazing or silage crop after harvesting rice is a good question. The reason is that they have not had to operate anything like a profitable business so why would they? Most farms in West Japan could produce 3 crops a year; a winter crop, rice or beans, followed by barley or triticale to either graze, bail or silage. As long as there is enough heat for something to grow, there should be something growing in the fields.

Many farmers do plant Chinese milk vetch after rice harvest as it is great at fixing nitrogen which provides nutrients for the next crop.

The most important question for Japanese agriculture is will the country hop on the EU crazy train in regards to CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing or will rational thought prevail.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

@Nasubi - Where can you buy basmati rice or thai rice or any other kind of rice in Japan

On Amazon! I only eat and buy jasmine rice from Thailand. Damn westerner I am!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Do the Hustle: "On Amazon! I only eat and buy jasmine rice from Thailand. Damn westerner I am!"

I have 20 kg of it at home. :) So much better than the polished garbage here. I do like brown rice here though.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"Competitive edge"? What on earth is the author writing about. Japanese rice farmers are protected by the taxpayer who is shafted three times by the government. Once in subsidies, twice with tariffs and a third time by the undemocratic weighted voting system. Let inefficiencies die where ever they are found.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

The Challenge is Japanese farming has become a "niche" business due to the fact that Japanese farmers as a whole are old and stubborn and refuse to change an modernize with the times. Also if they lose money from always doing their farming the old way, the Government always takes care of them, so they don't really need to make an effort to compete on the world stage. It's just like the Japanese cell phone market in the 80's with NTT i-Mode service. The Japanese basically invented internet access by cell phone, however they became very lazy and stubborn about continuing their innovation and Apple took it away from them and exploited the I-Phone to the world. Now it's only Apple and Samsung, leaving Japan far behind.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Many of the rice fields where I live in Chiba have a second crop planted after the rice harvest – mostly nanohana (rapeseed). Other fields have been converted to greenhouses for cut flowers, vegetables, or fruits.  And many have been converted to corn, soybeans or even rencon (water lily). And some rice fields are cut early and baled for cattle food.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Let's not forget to mention that the processed Japanese rice that is so "beloved" by the nation is not all that healthy for you either!

As more people become more health conscious, thanks in a large part to the "westernized" consumers! People are making wiser choices with regards to their diets and are not limiting their diets to white rice!

The future of his establishment in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, .....

What does he run his own store too?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The family in the article are actually members of my extended family, believe it or not. Several generations of this family (actually if you live in Niigata, you'll likely know them and their product) make a very beautiful variety of コシヒカリ and this past summer we went up to my husband's cousins farm. They're the most lovely people and they barely make ends meet, without complaint. I'm no Japan obsessive and maybe I do have some bias as it's literally my family but the higher end コシヒカリ is the cleanest tasting and most satisfying rice I've ever had.

I also wish there was a wider variety of international rice were available within Japan and the politics of the situation isn't pleasant. But I have to disagree with people saying there is no real difference between the higher end of Japanese rice and low cost imported (or even low cost domestic!) rice. The rice from the valleys near the sea of Japan have a very distinct flavor. Yes it's expensive but unfortunately it's not going into the pockets of the farmers (at least the ones I know).

Some of these families work themselves to the bone to make the higher brands of rice and it's almost entirely for the art of it and to protect a good traditional product. I don't know how people can eat something as good as コシヒカリ and say they can't taste a difference between that and maybe a bag from 7-11. I have to think they're being bitter because the taste is so very obviously different.

These farmers are just as much victims of the politicization of Japanese agriculture as the average consumer here. They deserve respect for their craft, honestly.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Exactly. There is quite a lot of quality Japanese-style rice grown in California. 

Yes, and it's heavily subsidized by cheap water in a state that is fast running out of fresh water.

This is my problem with CA rice. It's a water intensive crop, and California doesn't have the water to waste. It's an ecological disaster waiting to happen. I can't understand why rice in grown in a state that is completely unsuited for it. It won't be too long before this all comes to a head.

The only reason California rice is cheap is because the growers are not paying the true cost of water. Soon all Californians will pay.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Nasubi, you ask, "Where can you buy basmati rice or thai rice or any other kind of rice in Japan?"

Try an Indian shop for basmati or a Thai shop for Thai rice. You can get both kinds and less common grains as well in Ameyoko between Okachimachi and Ueno Station. There are other places, too, such as other ethnic food shops.

Long-grain rice is not so hard to find if you make the effort to look. You might also find other interesting food products while looking for rice such as spices, which you can get in packages much better and cheaper than the overpriced supermarket miniscule ones.

In Costco I have seen Thai Jasmine rice, but that is the only Thai rice they have, not glutinous Thai rice and none of the cheaper forms of Thai rice that produce more separate grains than Jasmine when cooked.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You are all forgetting one thing about rice. The water. If you only knew just how disgusting the water used in California for rice fields is. It was even worse when California was scraping the bottom of the reservoir but since then they have been using more grey water and if that doesn't gross you out, I bet if you cared to try a side by side comparison, you taste the difference. But don't worry about it, buy the cheapest rice if you wish. It just leaves me with better tasting rice at the local Life, Seibu, etc. Ignorance is bliss as they say.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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