What would Japanese food be without rice? Perhaps a taste of the future.
The origins of Japan's association with the cereal are lost in time. The link runs so deep that the early indigenous name of the country is said to be "The Land of the Water Stalk Plant."
But cheaper alternatives, busy schedules, and a bad crop are taking the steam out of Japan's sticky love affair with rice.
Poor weather this summer has focused fresh attention on this island nation's staple crop. Temperatures were some two to three degrees Celsius below normal throughout much of the country last month, and rice fields got only about one-third their typical exposure to sunshine, according to the Japan Metrological Agency.
One rice think tank expects this year's crop to drop 7 percent from last year, and anticipates an "extremely poor harvest" in the cooler north of the country, where the bulk of the national crop is farmed. Some observers say Japan may be facing its worst rice harvest in a decade.
This cloudy forecast, however, may not take the toll it once would have on the national palate. A new UN study goes so far as to say that "rice is no longer a staple food" in Japan.
To be sure, a fresh steaming bowl of short-grain sticky rice still stirs a nostalgia for home and pride in the country's rural ancestry. It is central to ceremonial meals at certain times of year, such as New Year rice cakes.
But to Akira Kogiso, a third-generation owner of a small rice shop in Tokyo, times have changed. When his grandfather opened the store 60 years ago, around half the calorie intake in the average Japanese diet came from rice. That figure drained to 23 percent in 2000, according to the International Rice Research Institute. "The number of people who eat rice in Japan has really dwindled," he says.
The decline may have been encouraged by a rice shortage a decade ago, which forced the government to import 2.4 million tons of rice the following year from Thailand, the US, China, and Australia. The event proved a watershed, sparking a long, if grudging, process of opening Japan's closed agricultural markets. While the rice market remains largely protected from foreign imports, family-run rice shops must now compete with supermarkets for customers. Ten years ago, "only specialty rice shops were allowed to sell rice by law," says Mr. Kogiso.
Ironically, the government's policy of promoting self-sufficiency in rice production and subjecting imports to tariffs - as high as 390 percent - may also be partly to blame for the fading importance of rice in the Japanese diet. The policy protects the small-scale, high-cost farming practiced by traditional supporters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party coalition government.
But the puffed-up prices have put rice out of reach for lower-income families. The bulk of rice consumption occurs in older, wealthier households, while the less established economize with a more Western diet.
"Young people don't cook their own food anymore," says one shopkeeper. A McDonald's chain opened near his rice store earlier this year. "Restaurants and convenience stores target ready-made food at young families," he observes.
A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has found that Japanese consumers are more than willing to substitute other foods for rice if the price is right.
As incomes shrink and job security falls in uncertain times, Japanese families are adopting a diet based on bread, noodles, fresh meat, eggs, and vegetables.
Domestic shipments of pasta even rose 5.5 percent to 249,000 tons in 2002, according to a survey by the Japan-Pasta Association. The market expanded for the first time in three years, thanks in part to a demand for pasta at lunchtime by families eating at home more on the weekends.
Fresh meat has also become an important part of the Japanese diet, as consumer disappointment over a recent imposition of tariffs on imported beef and pork shows.
During the "rice crisis" of '93, some worried that rice's cultural importance might be threatened by the foreign varieties that were being brought in.
The cereal was thought to symbolize Japan more than any other food. It has played a formative role in the creation of Japanese social structure and was used as currency for paying taxes and wages until the mid-19th century. According to Shinto belief, the Emperor of Japan is the living embodiment of the god of the ripened rice plant.
Yet on the eve of the UN's International Year of Rice, rice sellers here can feel the waning of the "water stalk plant."
When Mr. Kogiso's grandfather opened his rice shop, there were few safer enterprises upon which to lay the foundations of a family business. Now, Kogiso and other local rice sellers are hoping a campaign to commemorate the Year of Rice will boost sales.
Whether they'll be selling the local product or emergency imports remains to be seen.