Japan should open up to rice imports

Japan should have long ago slashed its absurdly high rice tariffs. Michiyo Nakamoto reminds us in the FT why liberalization is in Japan’s and others’ interests:

Japan is one of the world’s largest importers of food products. The country that brought the world miso soup, tofu and soya sauce produces only 20 per cent of the soyabeans that go towards making these daily staples.

Japan’s dependence on imported food has grown so much over the years, along with the westernisation of its eating habits, that food self-sufficiency measured by calories consumed has tumbled from 79 per cent in 1960 to 40 per cent today…

Japan has taken a fiercely protectionist stance over rice, imposing tariffs of 778 per cent on imports… it has left the long-term viability of Japan’s rice sector under serious question. The failure to introduce market efficiencies has meant that despite Japan’s high rice prices, rice farming is so unprofitable that few young people are willing to take it on. As a result, more than half of rice farmers are in their 70s and most of them only produce rice part-time.

What is more, only 60 per cent of the land available for use as rice paddies is actually being used and as ageing farmers retire, this proportion is expected to fall. If the situation is left unchecked, Japan’s rice crop could plunge from an annual 8.5m tonnes to about 4m tonnes, says Akio Shibata, director of the Marubeni Research Institute. Mr Shibata worries that even if Japan opened its market to rice imports, it might not be able to procure all the supplies it needs, given recent global trends…

The issue is not just a matter of feeding the Japanese population. As one of the world’s largest food importers, Japan’s lack of food self-sufficiency could have a potentially damaging impact on supplies for other countries with less buying power… As a country that relies so heavily on food imports, Japan needs to play its part in ensuring stability in global food trade.