TOKYO — WHAT Uncle Sam could not do, Mother Nature might: force Japan to import rice.
Bad weather this summer has cut the rice crop to its lowest level in four decades, forcing Japan to the brink of breaking an official vow never to import ``a single grain of rice.''
The rice shortfall comes at a propitious political moment, possibly making imports an easier choice than in the past. Japan will face renewed demands to open its rice market by December, the deadline to conclude talks on liberalizing world trade. The import ban has become a symbol of barriers to foreign products in Japan.
Further, Japan's new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, is asking why Japan should remain self-sufficient in rice and why a farmer has more voting power than an urban consumer.
But an agriculture ministry decision to import rice may not be made for weeks while harvest figures are being tallied. The issue is so controversial that lifting the ban could bring down the Hosokawa government, some observers say. Still, foreign sellers already are eyeing a crack in the market.
Australia has asked that any imports be purchased in a ``fully commercial'' way. But David Graves, head of the US Rice Millers' Association, says the United States should be the supplier if Japan decides to import rice.
United States Trade Representative Mickey Kantor has warned that the US will solve the rice issue with Japan through bilateral talks if Japan fails to make sufficient efforts to open up its rice market at the Uruguay Round.
Tokyo officials claim the import ban prevents Japan from becoming dependent on other countries for a food staple. But nat- ional food security is now threatened by poor harvests as well as long-term cultivation trends, such as inefficient techniques and an aging farm population.
Prospects of a rice shortage this year have pushed prices to near-record levels, despite government controls. At an Aug. 31 auction, prices were about eight times those in the US. Nearly 70 percent of Japanese favor some or total liberalization of the rice trade, according to a poll by the Nikkei newspaper.
A Japanese market research group, Rice Data Bank, estimates that the summer's cloudy and cool weather might force Japan to import about 5 percent of the average harvest. Other analysts predict a 10 percent shortfall. Importing 5 percent of rice would equal the minimum amount suggested in the Uruguay Round proposal for foreign access.
For two years, the government's stockpiles of emergency rice supplies have been far below the 1-million-metric-ton level considered necessary for national food security. Officials blame a series of typhoons.
Japan has opposed action at the Geneva talks to move to ``visible'' barriers such as tariffs. A group of economists and policy experts known as the Forum for Policy Innovation estimates that opening the rice market would cost Japanese farmers up to $4.5 billion a year, which would be offset by consumer benefits.
Last year, the government stepped up efforts to make farmers more efficient. If rice imports are forced on Japan in international trade talks, Japanese growers would face stiff competition.
One proposed step is a 10-year project to develop a new strain of rice sown directly as seed in paddy fields, instead of the traditional method of transplanting seedlings from nursery beds. The new seed could be planted by aircraft instead of people stooped over flooded paddies.
To a small degree, foreign rice has established a beachhead - entering as either processed rice products, or flour. These imports have increased as the Japanese yen has appreciated.
Another way around the import ban has been found by food traders who have brought in US rice using orders from individual Japanese. The government allows rice imports of 100 kilograms per person.