Rice is the main crop in Japan. It has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years in Japan. In the Edo period rice yields were a measurement of a lord's wealth. Japan usually produces a surplus of rice. Even so rice production across Japan has fallen 20 percent in the past decade. There are 1.8 million rice-growing households in Japan.

For three millennia rice has been raised in a sustainable way in Japan. The hills and mountains are covered by rice terraces. Woodlands are preserved as a source of compost. In recent decades the careful balance between man and nature has come under threat through the extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers.

“Rice is a spiritual touchstone in this country, one AP journalist wrote. “The nation’s soul — despite a modern fascination with all things high-tech — remains rooted in the soil...Japan’s emperor plants and harvests symbolic stalks every year, and some city dwellers rent small plots to grow rice on the edge of town. The country’s mythology is filled with references to rice, and the written character for “rice field” forms part of many surnames. In the name of preserving tradition, Japan’s mostly small-scale rice farmers are heavily protected from cheaper foreign competition.”

Hokkaido is Japan’s leading producer of rice. The rice grown there however has a poor reputation, These days farmers are experimenting with new strains such as Yume Pirake to change the island’s reputation for producing bland-tasting rice. Honohilari is the predominant rice strain grown in Kyushu. These days more and more farmers are experimenting with new strains such as Sagabiyori, known for retaining its flavor even in hot summer, and Genkitsukushi and Akihonami.

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry said that the 2012 rice crop is as good as an average year in 29 prefectures, relatively good in 11 prefectures and "relatively bad" in six prefectures. The average trading price of rice was 15,327 yen per 60 kilograms in February 2012 — up 21 percent from a year before--according to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. "Many farmers are unwilling to sell rice, expecting prices to rise," an official from a major rice wholesaler said of a possible factor behind the price increase.

Good Websites and Sources on Agriculture: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries maff.go.jp/e ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Agriculture Chapter stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp Agriculture Statistics, Japan nationmaster.com ;30-page Google E-Book: Agriculture in Japan (1918) books.google.com/books Agriculture and Food — Japan (2003) ; earthtrends.wri.or ; 30-page Google E-Book: Agriculture in Japan (1918) books.google.com/books ; Tree Hugger article on “Japan’s Amazing Rice Fields and Farms” treehugger.com/

Good Websites and Sources on Crops and Food: Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; Japanese Vegetable Dishes on About.com /japanesefood.about.com ; Growing Japanese Vegetables gardenguides.com ; Wikipedia article on Japanese Fruits Wikipedia ; About.com pictures of Japanese Fruit japanesefood.about.com ;Matsutake Mushrooms matsiman.com ; Swedish Site on Raising Matsutake Mushrooms in Japan goliatmusseron.blogspot.com ; Wikipedia article on Shiitake Mushrooms Wikipedia ; Green Tea Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Japanese Green Tea www.o-cha.com ; Japanese Green Tea Online japanesegreenteaonline.com ; teanobi.com

Good Websites and Sources on Rice Farming: Traditional Rice farming in Japan lasr.net/travelarticles ; Rice Cultivation Photos japan-photo.de ; Photos of Rice Terraces ne.jp/asahi/aoyagi ; Rice Terrace Agriculture tokyofoundation.org ; Wikipedia article on Japanese Rice Wikipedia ; Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org Japanese Rice Culture worldcom.ch/negenter ; Tree Hugger article on “Japan’s Amazing Rice Fields and Farms” treehugger.com/ ;Rice Farming and Greenhouse Gases gsfc.nasa.gov ; Mapping Paddy Rice Agriculture neyshtadt.ru Also Try RiceWeb: www.riceweb.org ; Riceonline: www.riceonline.com

Early Rice Farming in Japan

Yayoi period storehouse
Many archeologist looked upon the introduction of wet land rice farming techniques as the technological advancement that marked the beginning of the Yayoi period (400 B.C.-A.D. 300) and the end of the Jomon period. In Kyushu people at red-kerneled rice.

For a long time the earliest evidence of rice farming was dated to around 300 B.C. which worked nicely into models that it was introduced when the Koreans, forced to migrate by upheaval in China n the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.), arrived around the same time. Later a number of Korean objects, dated between 800 and 600 B.C., were found. These discoveries upset the neatness of the model.

Then in the early 2000s, grains of wetland rice were found in pottery from northern Kyushu dated to 1000 B.C. This called into question the dating of the entire Yayoi period and caused some archeologist to speculate that maybe wet-land rice farming was introduced directly from China. This assertion is backed up somewhat by similarity in skeletal remains of 3000-year-old skeletons found in Quinghai province in China and Yayoi bodies unearthed in northern Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture.

Japanese immigrants introduced superior rice varieties to the United States. By the early 1920s, 85 percent of the rice in California was of Japanese origin.

Rice Agriculture in Japan

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, "Much of the most rice produced in Japan is still grown using commercial chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. Organic farming requires a heavy input in terms of weeding and other labor. Many farms are now owned and managed only by an elderly couple, and there is just not enough labor available to farm organically. Fortunately, however, the chemicals used, as well as the delivery systems, have improved greatly over the past several decades. Pesticides, for example, are far milder, and are usually sprayed directly onto the rice plants by hand, or from low-flying radio-controlled helicopters. In the past, powerful chemicals were dropped from a higher altitude, and wound up falling heavily on the surrounding lands as well." [Source: Kevin Short, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 30, 2011]

The Balinese eat about a pound of rice a day. The Burmese consume a little more than a pound; Thais and Vietnamese about three quarters of a pound; and the Japanese about a third of a pound. In contrast, the average America eats about 22 pounds a year. A tenth of rice grown in the United States is used in making beer. It provides a "lighter color and more refreshing taste," an Anheuser-Busch brewmaster told National Geographic.

Strong-Willed Rice Farmers

mechanized planter
Reporting from Sakaemura in Nagano Tsuyoshi Yoshioka wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “In the early morning of March 12, an earthquake registering upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7 struck the farming village of Sakaemura.The aftershock from the March 11 earthquake severely damaged rice paddies in the village, which is famous for its brand of rice. It left many cracks in the ground and caused about 170 hectares, or about 75 percent of the land planted with last year's rice, to subside. [Source: Tsuyoshi Yoshioka, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 2011]

In the aftermath of the disaster, farmers were unable to plant rice seedlings in 46 hectares of land. In some rice paddies where farmers had already planted seedlings, ridges between paddies broke apart. In the village's Mori district, built in steep areas in 1961, landslides severed conduits used to transport water. Farmers gave up planting this year in two-thirds of all rice paddies in the district.

However, they haven't given up hope. On Aug. 7, all male members of a farmers association in Mori worked as a group to repair damaged water conduits and remove weeds. They repositioned small stone shrines that had been shaken loose by the quake, and offered sake to them. They then bowed before the shrines at the direction of Toshio Hirose, the association's 72-year-old leader, and prayed for an abundant harvest, safety during activities in the mountains and a good rice harvest next year. "We don't want to lose our rice paddies that our ancestors created," Hirose said. The paddies that were severely damaged will be restored with the help of the central government's subsidy plan for rebuilding from the disaster.

While traditional festivals were suspended in other districts in Sakaemura, Kotaki district residents decided to hold their regular festival on Aug. 16 to pray for a rich harvest. In the days leading up to it, villagers practiced a sacred dance to music inherited from their ancestors. "We wanted to heat up our festival more than usual years. It was a huge success," said Tsuyoshi Nakazawa, 47, who organized the event. The villagers' strong will to carry on their ancestors' rice paddies has sparked the rebuilding process. Kazumi Hirose, a 78-year-old farmer who helped build the Mori district, expressed his resolve: "As long as I live, I'll never give up producing rice."

Rice Paddy Ecosystem

Rice paddies create a lovely landscape and have their own rich ecosystem. Fish such as minnows, loaches and bitterling can survive in the paddies and the canals as can aquatic snails, worms, frogs, crawfish beetles, fireflies and other insects and even some crabs. Egrets, kingfishers, snakes and other birds and predators feed on feed on these creatures. Ducks have been brought into rice paddies to eat weeds and insects and eliminate the need for herbicides and pesticides. Innovations such as concrete-sided canals have damaged the rice paddy ecosystem by depriving plants and animals of places they can live.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Paddies are entirely man-made habitats, built for the single purpose of growing rice. Ecologically, however, they function much like shallow wetlands. Many species of dragonfly and damselfly lay their eggs in the paddies, as do several types of frogs. Some farmers I know still carry a big glass jar with them when they set out to work in the paddies. Soon the jar is filled with wriggling loaches (dojo), which will provide their o-kazu side dish for the evening meal. As might be expected, this wealth of small animal prey attracts various birds to the rice paddies. Egrets and herons feed steadily all day long, and are usually considered to be the typical "paddy birds." At this time of year, however, they are joined for a short period by another group of very different birds, migratory sandpipers and plovers. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, May 19, 2011]

Kevin Short wrote in the Yomiuri, “Irrigated rice culture has been practiced in Japan for nearly 3000 years. Over these long centuries, some species of wild plants and animals have been driven high into the mountains by changes in the environment brought about by farming. Many others, however, have cleverly adapted their life cycles and behavior to take maximum advantage of habitats and feeding opportunities presented by the countryside landscape. The shrikes' seasonal movements may be one example of the latter.”

A tractor harvesting rice usually attracts a bevy of opportunistic birds. As the rice is cut, frogs, snakes, lizards and insects that were hiding among the stalks are suddenly exposed and forced to run for their lives. The birds simply follow after the tractor, enjoying a welcome windfall feast. Typical tractor-groupies include egrets and herons, as well as starlings and crows, and occasionally shrikes.”

Rice Paddy Animals Match Their Time Cycle to Agricultural Rhythms

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Amazingly, many aquatic animals time their life cycles to precisely match the seasonal rhythms of rice farming. Japanese tree frogs (Hyla japonica or nihon amagaeru), for example, begin laying their eggs as soon as the paddies are filled with water in late April and early May. The eggs quickly hatch into tadpoles, which feed and grow steadily for a month or two. Now, just as the water is about to be drained from the paddies, the tadpoles are ready to metamorphose into tiny frogs. The new frogs are less than one centimeter long, and come crawling out of the paddies by the thousands. The aze dikes that separate the paddies are totally awash in invasion waves of baby frogs. [Source: Kevin Short, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 30, 2011]

The tree frogs' strategy for survival of the species is to come charging out of the paddies in overwhelming numbers. Baby frogs are the favorite prey of snakes and weasels, and just about any passing bird is happy to gobble up a few dozen. Only a miniscule percentage of the new frogs will survive the onslaught of predators, but this will be enough to ensure the next generation.

washing rice in the 19th century
Also emerging from the paddies in large numbers are meadowhawk dragonflies. The tree frog eggs had been deposited this spring, but the dragonfly eggs had been laid last autumn. The eggs spend the winter in the soft paddy mud, then hatch out into aquatic larva, called naiads (yago in Japanese), as soon as the paddies are filled with water. The naiads grow and molt several times, and are ready to metamorphose into dragonflies just before the paddies are drained. The final stage naiads crawl up a rice stalk, then split open to reveal the beautiful adult dragonfly inside. The newly emerged adults are soft and vulnerable at first, and some time is needed for their wings to dry and harden before they can fly away. For this reason, the metamorphosis usually takes place at night, when fewer potential predators, especially sharp-eyed birds, are about.

The little egret, or ko-sagi, are aficionados of both dragonflies and new tree frogs. At this time of year they frequent the paddies and aze dikes, busily snapping up baby frogs by the hundreds. Egrets, herons and other long-legged wading birds depend heavily on the rice paddies for their food. They especially appreciate the sudden boost in easily caught new tree frogs, which comes just when they are raising their chicks in large communal nesting colonies known as sagi-yama (sagi is a generic term for a heron or egret).

The baby frogs are also an ideal size for newly hatched snakes. Snakes can only take prey that is small enough to swallow whole. A newly hatched snake could not swallow an adult frog, but a baby tree frog would be just right. These small snakes in turn are a favorite target for larger herons and also birds of prey such as the sashiba, or grey-faced buzzard eagle.

Rice Production in Japan

Most rice farming is done by "Sunday farmers" who make most of their income in some other way. There is little profit in raising rice and many do it "only because we inherited the land."

A typical farmer with a hectare of rice fields produces about a ton of rice. Thus is about enough to feed his extended family and make generous gifts to friends. When the cost of machines, tools and supplies is factored the family loses money, but say the effort is worthwhile because the rice tastes good and there is sense of satisfaction in producing it oneself.

Rice production has been hurt by declining rice consumption which in turn is caused in part by declining birthrate and the aging society. Annual rice consumption per capita has fallen from 67.3 kilograms in 1996 to 61.4 kilograms in 2005.

Farmer are paid about $150 for a 60 kilograms of rice. These 60 kilograms in turn are sold for about $300 at stores.

Rice prices fell sharply in 2007 as a result of a supply glut caused by too many farmers growing rice over other crops because it was seen as more profitable.

The government keeps a stockpile of rice that ideally is around 1 million tons. It often buys rice from farmers during periods of oversupply.

The Japanese government is trying to encourage the use of rice flour to make bread and noodles to stimulate demand and encourage more people to grow rice. These days more and farmers are using rice as feed for chickens and pigs. One of the affects of this is that rice-fed chickens produce yokes that are nearly white (corn feed is one reason why egg yokes are usually yellow). Pork from rice-fed pigs is said to be quite tasty. Using rice in this way helps rice farmers find markets for their crops and increases Japan’s efforts to be more self-sufficient in food production.

Rice Farming in Japan

A few weeks before the rice is planted the paddies are plowed and filled with water. The transplanting is done with machines. Spraying fertilizers and insecticides takes only a couple of hours.

The most time-consuming task is planting seeds to produce the seedlings. Rice seedlings are grown in separate beds. First the seeds are soaked in water, then sewn in dense mats designed to fit into special devices mounted on rice planters. The seedling are sold in palettes that sell for about ¥750 a piece. It takes about a dozen or os of these pallets to plant a small field.

The planting is done with a machine that looks like jet ski with robot wheels. There is an angled splay on the back that feeds the palettes to small pincers that whirl around and pluck off a couple of shoots at a time and stick them in the muck. Two-wheeled machines are used for small fields. Four-wheel machines are much faster and used in bigger fields. Hard to reach areas are don by hand. With these machines planting a field takes just a few hours. Sometimes learning to drive the machines takes longer than the field work.

The planters have incredibly dexterous mechanical fingers that pluck patches of seedlings from the mat and plant them in neat. The harvesting is also done with machines that look minaiture versions of the large harvesters that you see in the United States harvesting wheat.

Modern Rice Paddies in Japan

Traditional paddies were small, irregularly shapes and filled with soft, deep mud that made working them tractors and other machine near impossible.

Moderns rice paddies are larger, firmer, rectangular in shape and completely dry in the winter in part so they can be more easily worked by machines like tractors. Many paddies in Japan have underground drainage systems that allow water to seep out into the canals during the off-season. The canals were deepened to make drainage easier. The result are paddies that are easier to work with machines but are less accommodating to wildlife that has traditionally lived in paddies and are particularly reliant on having paddies filled with water in the off-season.

With the exception of small paddies on terraced hillsides most rice is grown in valley bottoms and low-lying alluvial plains that would be occupied by marshes and wetlands with reeds and cat tails if left in a natural state. Many of the plants displaced by the rice remain alive around the edges of the fields and in the ditches. When the land is left fallow these plants return.

Fields with underground drainage systems are dry in the off-season and fairly solid and easy to turn over and plant mechanically, whereas fields that contain water year after year are too soft to be worked by heavy tractors and have to be planted by hand.

Concrete irrigation ditches are a fixture of Japanese paddies. Largely constructed as public works projects, they require much less maintenance than traditional earth-sided ditches that have to be repaired, cleaned ands weeded with some regularity. The concrete ditches however are not so friendly to rice-paddy creatures

Many fields are abandoned after their owners die or become too old to tend them.

threshing rice in the 19th century

Rice Farming and Global Farming

In recent years high summer temperatures and either too much or too little rain have negatively affected rice harvests. High temperatures cause poor yields and produce immature grains with poor starch content. Some blame global warming. One rice expert told Reuters, “The 20 or so days after the ear of the rice has appeared is most crucial...and high temperatures during that period leads to the production of immature grains.”

Farmers are starting to experiment with heat-resistant strains of rice. These taste significantly different than the usual strains and some expect say it may take more than a decade for them to be embraced by consumers.

Some Japanese insist that global warming has affected the taste of rice. A chef at an upscale restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo told Reuters, “In the past I could really savor the flavor of rice with just a sprinkling of salt. This isn’t a scientific point...but the past four or five years, it’s become rare to have rice that I really find tasty.”

Import Restrictions and Subsidized Rice in Japan

Most of the rice eaten in Japan is Japanese rice. One rice shop owner told Reuters, “Foreign rice is for foreigners. Japanese people like only Japanese rice.”

Most years the Japanese government limits the import of rice to 4 percent of the market to protect Japanese farmers by keeping prices up to ten times higher than the world level and imposing a 500 percent duty on imported rice. Some of the bitterest trade disputes involving Japan and other nations have involved rice. The GATT agreement with the United States requires Japan to import 4 to 8 percent of it rice requirements.

In the 1980s, it was illegal for Japanese to import and sell rice. A display of U.S. rice at an agricultural trade fair in 1991 caused such an uproar that the USA Rice Council that presennted it was forced to take it down. One representative from an American rice company was arrested for breaking import laws when he displayed a bowl of American-grown rice

Rice is subsidized to help Japanese farmers and to address fears of food supplies from overseas being cut off. Koji Tutada, the vice minister of agriculture, explained to National Geographic. "It is our staple food, and so we must have a reliable supply as a matter of national security. That is why we politicians favor self-sufficiency."

American rice exporters resent this because they could sell rice much cheaper than domestically-grown rice sold at Japanese supermarkets. Foreign rice has become more common since 1995, when the government relaxed tight controls on production, distribution and sale of rice.

The Chinese banned rice from Japan in 2003 due to quarantine problems concerning insects. The ban was lifted in 2007.

New Rice Regulations in Japan and Import Quotas

In July 2011, a law concerning rice origins came into full effect. The law obliges restaurant operators to keep records on rice purchases and label the place of origin, making it easy for consumers and others to see where foreign rice is served.

Japan currently imposes a 778 percent tariff on foreign rice to protect domestic farmers. Therefore, only 100 to 200 tons of rice is imported by paying the tariff each year.

Foreign rice currently available in the market has been imported through the so-called minimum access system. Under the Uruguay Round in the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs in 1993, Japan is required to import a specific amount of rice every year tariff-free. It currently imports about 770,000 tons of rice every year under the system, while about 8 million tons of rice is harvested domestically.

Most of the minimum access rice is used as animal feed or as an ingredient in processed food, with some sent as aid to foreign countries. Under the minimum access system, a maximum of 100,000 tons of rice can be imported as staple food. Calls may come, however, to expand the amount if imported rice becomes more popular, experts said.

The Tokyo Grain exchange began futures trading of rice on a trial basis in August 2011

Image Sources: 1) 3) 10) Ray Kinnane 2) 6) 7) 8) 13) Jun from Goods in Japan 4) 5) 11) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 9) 12) Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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