FIVE years ago, a Japanese farmer named Isonobu Kawasaki began to sell rice illegally - but openly.
In defying official market controls on Japan's staple crop, Mr. Kawasaki was quite willing to be put on trial in a court, just to prove a point. In fact, he even made a request to be prosecuted.
"The nation as a whole doesn't understand the general trend in farming," says Mr. Kawasaki, who now works as a rice dealer in the town of Fuchu and has become a budding hero to many farmers and consumers.
"Japanese farmers are well off and our lives are no longer solely dependent on rice," he says. "People in the business have started to realize that clutching on to licenses has no connection with profit." Farmers should bypass government to sell directly to consumers, says Kawasaki, who has found this approach profitable.
Japan, like South Korea, China, and most Asian nations, has kept farmers in a straitjacket of government controls in order to maintain self-sufficiency in food grains. Farmers have been insulated from world markets, but at the price of inefficiency.
Such a government role in the rice market is still widely accepted in Asia. By ancient tradition, rice-growing has always been a communal endeavor, from the replanting of young green shoots to the building of irrigation dikes.
In feudal Japan, the government owned all land - and rice. Today, it bans the import of rice to help save a shrinking, aging, but politically powerful population of rice farmers. Most Japanese rice farmers would go out of business without protection.
Japanese consumers pay about four times the world price for rice and many countries are demanding that Japan open its market to cheaper rice imports.
"With foreign countries pushing for a liberalized market, farmers have started to make their own efforts" to become more efficient, Kawasaki says. "They have come to a self-realization. You can't count on politicians' words."
In much of Asia, whether rich or poor, food security continues to be an important objective that justifies subsidies and price controls, says Nihal Amerasinghe, manager of the agriculture division at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. "It's a very practical approach. The problem for each country is how to get food fast in case they need it."
Still, some countries have cut controls or subsidies as their budgets have been squeezed and as farmers have achieved ever larger yields with new seed varieties, expanded irrigation, and extensive use of modern fertilizers and pesticides. Indonesia has reduced rice subsidies since 1980 for those rural areas that are better-suited for crops other than rice, says Hitoshi Yonekura of Japan's Institute of Developing Economies.
`BEFORE Indonesia was able to achieve a near self-sufficiency in rice, the government gave almost any farmer all they needed to grow rice," he says.
Since the green revolution in rice began in the late 1960s, Asia has had no major harvest failures, allowing some easing of official commitment to the near-sacrosanct goal of rice self-sufficiency.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington forecasts that Asian rice production will grow 2.02 percent a year up to 2005, mainly from scientific advances and more stable world prices. But consumption will go up at a faster annual rate of 2.11 percent, requiring more food imports. If the right investments are made in more rice production, states the IFPRI report, food security for each country can be maintained.
The report, sponsored by the Asian Development Bank, says a generalized harvest failure in Asia cannot be ruled out and recommends that countries rely more on international trade. By the year 2030, says Mr. Amerasinghe, Asia will need to produce 60 percent more rice. "How do we do this with less and less land area available?" he asks. "We need a tremendous jump in productivity."
To rice dealer Kawasaki, the best way to avoid market distortions caused by the government is to be independent of official control. So far, he has not been prosecuted for his defiance, but the government has pressured banks, delivery companies, and wholesalers not to do business with him.
"Being tied down to regulations and relying on others [for protection] - you can no longer depend on these things," he says.