Tokyo — Japan's farmers are relieved that they have managed to stave off American rice imports - for a while. But they know that over the long run, Japanese agriculture faces wrenching changes if it has to compete with imports. ``I just don't want to let American rice in,'' says Atao Kaneuchi, a farmer in the rich rice-growing prefecture of Niigata. ``Anything else, but not rice.''
But another Niigata farmer, Sakae Mihara, says, ``A little rice from America might give us a shot in the arm.''
Mr. Mihara's view is not typical. But like Mr. Kaneuchi's, it was caused by American rice growers' demand for a share of the Japanese market - a demand that United States Special Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter rejected on Friday. (The US Rice Millers' Association - the RMA - petitioned for a finding that Japan was unfairly restricting rice imports and proposing bilateral talks aimed at opening 10 percent of Japan's 10 million-metric-ton market in four years.)
Mr. Yeutter's rejection was conditional. In mid-December, GATT (the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade), a forum that regulates world trade, has a meeting at which Yeutter wants the Japanese to propose specific, gradual, market-opening steps for rice. Otherwise, he says, he may take up the RMA's petition.
Japanese farmers like Mihara know there is only one way they can survive even a partial opening of Japan's rice market. That is to drastically increase the size of Japanese farms while improving their efficiency.
The typical farm is just 2 acres. Heavy farm subsidies make Japanese rice eight times as expensive as American rice. But consumer resistance is beginning to force prices down, very gradually, while costs continue high and farm size makes efficient use of machinery nearly impossible.
For Mihara, external pressure will hasten the pace of change. In Japan, rice prices and the rice trade are controlled by the government. Most farmers are part-time; they derive about 80 percent of their income from non-agricultural sources. Rice is easy to grow and the government offers them a guaranteed price.
Mihara is a full-time farmer. He began his farm nine years ago, with just two acres. Year by year he bought or rented more land until today he has about 37 acres. Land even in the remote valley where he lives costs up to $48,000 per acre. Mihara has machinery worth about $320,000 and is carrying about the same amount in debt.
``This kind of pressure - the RMA petition - makes farmers doubtful about the future ...,'' Mihara said. ``So more people are willing to sell or rent their land than before. I figure that in three or four years I may be able to increase my acreage to 100 acres or more.''
Mihara wants to get out from under government controls, to sell his rice at whatever price he thinks the market will pay. ``I want to make people brand conscious,'' he said. He is part of a movement to label rice according to district and farm, much as French winemakers label their products. He thinks he might command a premium of as much as five times over ordinary rice. ``Then I don't have to be afraid of imported rice.''
Experts agree that Mihara's way of farming is the wave of the future. But government policies are aimed at benefiting the part-time farmers, whose numbers - and whose votes - are more numerous than full-timers'.
Shinichiro Hiraishi, president of the National Conference of Rice-producing Entrepreneurs, an organization of full-time rice growers, says: ``The government claims to be encouraging full-time rice growers, but in fact its policies benefit the inefficient part-timers. These are the people who have the votes. So we can't rely on politicians to bring about the changes we need. We can count only on the media and on consumers....''
``It took ten years to open up our beef market,'' he continues, ``I think it will take the same amount of time to open up the rice market.''