THE JAPANESE RICE MARKET:
(This version sent to Friends Sat, 31 Jan 1998, adapted from a post I sent to ISSHO Jan 18, 1998)
Hello Friends List:
I've been rather quiet these past few weeks, busy with bookwork. I'm writing a 250-page novel in Japanese, and it's pretty slow going (four weeks into it, I'm on page 34). Due April, so you can bet I'll be pretty quiet over the next few months.
Still, it's nigh time for a quick email post to you. I don't know if any of you are members of the ISSHO network, but here's a little email joust which transpired over it a couple of weeks ago. The trigger was that brief email I sent you all about the Japanese government's hoarding of rice. I had put up a photo on my web page (here) of the warehouse which stored tons of rice alongside my housebuilding imports. I claimed this is just one more way Japan keeps imports of rice out.
Well, a gentleman on ISSHO responded and really set me off.
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998
From: ATW Subject: [ISSHO] Japan's hoarding of rice--evidence
ISHHOites and Friends
I'm not sure how much significance I place in David's discovery of 'hoarded rice' in warehouses at Shin Chitose Airport.
For one thing, even tons and tons and tons and tons of rice doesn't necessarily indicate hoarding, because (a) Japan uses an awful lot of rice, and (b) much of it is grown in Hokkaido and could be stored there for shipping to the other islands. Has David also considered the possibility that it's stored for use in times of rice shortage? I'm not an economist, but I would have thought releasing 'hoarded' rice at such a time would relieve rising prices.
But the main thing, I guess I don't find it necessary to question whether the rice is being hoarded to keep prices up or not. The European Union stockpiles products to keep prices high and ends up with butter mountains, wine lakes (and big rock-candy mountains...) as prescribed by their Common Agricultural Policy; why shouldn't Japan do the same?
Japan cannot, of course, be self-sufficient in rice unless it maintains high prices, because its geography, which is far from ideal for growing enough rice to feeds its people. I have always understood that Japan wants to remain self-sufficient in its staple diet as a matter of policy, and completely agree with its reasons. David will no doubt be aware of what happened when his country deprived Japan of exports of oil.
No case to answer, I submit... ATW, Sapporo.
Date: Sun, 18 Jan 1998
From: Dave Aldwinckle
They say that the biggest email flames start because the respondent misquotes or ignores information posited by the original poster. Well, here goes. Although Mr ATW is a Sapporo resident (and I risk annoying a neighbor), his comments have enough holes in them to warrant a quick response.
The first thing that I noticed about his response is that I get misquoted. Nowhere in the original post did I say the warehouse with the stockpiled rice was in Shin Chitose Airport. So why was that fact attributed to me? It was, in fact, Tomakomai (which I did not mention).
Mr ATW further indicates that he did not read my post very carefully when he says:
"Has David also considered the possibility that it's stored for use in times of rice shortage?"
Yes I have, in my original post--where I said: "It [meaning the stockpiling] might be happening due to fears of another bad harvest..."
He also shows ignorance of how the Japanese rice market works when he says:
"I'm not an economist, but I would have thought releasing 'hoarded' rice at such a time would relieve rising prices."
The Japanese rice market is not a market, in the regular sense of the word, because prices aren't determined by the market. Look up "monopsony" in your dictionary. The government buys all rice in Japan, fixes the price that the consumer pays (announcing it in the newspapers every year), and acts as the sole distribution agent to the consumer (with only a few recent exceptions). Ergo prices do not "rise" unless the government says so--and they rarely change in the course of a year. Not releasing the stockpiles is exactly how the government "keeps" the prices--and thus the supply--*up*, not down, by keeping it a precious commodity and an enormous cash cow for all, except the consumer. This is elementary economics--not something one needs to be a specialist to understand.
Mr ATW also resorts to boilerplate arguments by saying:
"But the main thing, I guess I don't find it necessary to question whether the rice is being hoarded to keep prices up or not. The European Union stockpiles products to keep prices high and ends up with butter mountains, wine lakes (and big rock-candy mountains...) as prescribed by their Common Agricultural Policy; why shouldn't Japan do the same?"
Because Japan is different than the EU. The markets in the EU are markets, with products influenced by world commodity prices. The Japanese rice market is completely controlled by the government--making it a command economy. Yes, there has been intervention and market fudging in the EU, resulting in much the same kind of wastage. But not only have things gotten better with the increased European integration, the fact stands that two wrongs do not make a right. Just because other people do the same stupid things shows no justification for continuation.
Particularly, in the case of rice, Japan is taking enormous advantage of its captive market, wratcheting prices to between five and ten times (depending on the exchange rate) the world market price--and forcing Japanese consumers to have the highest proportional disposable income expenditure on food in the OECD. This is hypocritical for Japan to do as a member of the WTO, winning cases for its other products, and enjoying more access to the American rice markets (or any product market, for that matter) than vice versa. This unilateral market access is how Japan got rich. Now, as a fellow OECD member, it has long been time for things to change, and Japan's command economies brought into line with world standards.
Speaking of boilerplate, Mr ATW throws the ultimate frisbee here:
"Japan cannot, of course, be self-sufficient in rice unless it maintains high prices, because its geography, which is far from ideal for growing enough rice to feeds its people. I have always understood that Japan wants to remain self-sufficient in its staple diet as a matter of policy, and completely agree with its reasons. David will no doubt be aware of what happened when his country deprived Japan of exports of oil."
This is what sets me off. Mr ATW should be hired as a gaijin handler with slogans like these--they'd almost convince someone who doesn't know anything about Japan.
The "keeping the genie in the bottle" argument (i.e. if we don't do what Japan wants it'll attack us) is often used by those with ulterior motives (such as keeping American troops in Okinawa to prop up the American military-industrial complex). If Japan imports more rice, we go to war, is what you're saying? If Japan loses its jikyuu jisoku [self sufficiency] in rice, people will starve because of its geography?
Japan is a much more mature country than that both economically and ideologically (not to mention productively--if not, why would Japan have a policy of reducing those rice paddies which produce *too much* rice? Seems counter-intuitive if there's a fear of famine.) than that. There's plenty of rice to go around both within and outside of Japan, and most consumers in the world are allowed to take advantage of that. So stop belittling Japan with arguments based on sakoku [closed country] conjecture and not fact.
Topping it off by saying:
"David [I am not on a first-name basis with this guy] will no doubt be aware of what happened when *his country* [my emphasis] deprived Japan of exports of oil."
implies complicity on my part. Not terribly neighborly. And it shows a tendency towards dirty pool in debate arenas.
Birds of a feather, given the government organization we are talking about. If Mr ATW "completely agree[s] with its reasons" for Japan's keeping rice markets closed, then does he agree with the Japanese government's means? I don't know how short Mr ATW's memory is (the bad harvest was only four years ago), but the Ministry of Dirty Tricks (Nourinshou--the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) did everything in its power to make sure that imported rice could not compete on its own merits. Blending it with inferior rice (Californian Japonica is superior to Australian or Chinese, sorry--because it's the same rice as Japanese, grown under the same conditions--except that the grains are longer. And even that was made an issue of), demanding storage and preservatives that were later used against it in the Japanese press and supermarket handouts, and finally taking it off the market as soon as possible (it winked out of Sapporo stores faster than I could believe). The image of "it's foreign BUT cheaper" has been allowed to stand, by government finagling.
This is nothing new--this sort of dirty pool has occurred with other products, including beef, oranges, and apples (where Nourinshou even lied about the existence of a deadly botanical disease and consequently almost infected Australian orchards, and doubtless leaked information about the Hakodate scientist who spilled the beans to the international community. He later faced so much social sanction that he committed suicide. Substantiation here.)
If Japan has a right to be this destructive to its own people as well, in the name of self-sufficiency, then I'm going to denounce it, because it is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with a country with an autocratic bureaucracy, forgetting long ago who is serving whom, and refusing to relinquish power in the face of aberrant, even tragic, consequences.
Mr ATW should do a bit more research about the way things are before shooting his mouth off like that. Otherwise, he just becomes the mouthpiece for the very system that is actively exploiting its own citizenry. Himself included.
In Kirara rice country
Mr ATW did not reply. I might also add (I found this out from a European friend) that the EU has policies where the government must buy up the ag *surplus* (to prevent producers from dumping overproduction into the sea to keep prices up--as Columbia does with excess coffee beans), creating the famous mountains and lakes. However, the ag products are still initially exposed to the market, and what's left over, bought. This is completely different from Japan, where the market doesn't even come into the rice equation. The rice market is, according to JPRI, a remnant of the prewar/postwar rice rationing days--it's just that the apparatus was never dismantled. Mainly because Nokyo Agricultural Cooperatives usurped power during MacArthur's day and never let go.
That's all, folks. One friend of mine (who read the above) thinks I've gone over the top with this whole thing. It was only a mild rebuke from ATW, and if I'm going to get my knickers in a twist and grace every critic with a reply, I'm either going to wind up with hypertension or an unwritten book.
Fair enough. But I have a hard time suffering those people who may be unwittingly spouting some hook-line-and-sinkered view, especially one devised by a government organization that I personally know does worse than just lace the marketplace of ideas with propaganda. Exploding myths is a noble pastime, and I would hope that doing so is not merely a waste of effort.
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Copyright 1998, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan