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Rough Cut: Japan: The Slow Life
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about the importance of rice to the Japanese way of life.

Background

Japan is one of the world's leading powers when it comes to technology, and industry is the nation's most important economic sector. But Japan's social structure was founded on its agricultural system.

Japan today has one of the lowest rates of food self-sufficiency of all industrialized countries. The country's abundant marine resources keep the fishing industry active, but farming in Japan has long been on a rocky road.

The composition of the soil restricts what can be grown there. Farmers cannot produce enough wheat, soybeans, or other major crops to feed all its citizens. The one plentiful crop is rice, which has been cultivated by the Japanese for more than 2,000 years.

The Importance of Rice

For the Japanese, rice is an important part of both diet and culture. In fact, the Japanese word for cooked rice (gohan) also means "meal." Rice is processed into various products and prepared in many different ways. Some popular processed rice products include mochi (small rice cakes), sake (rice wine), Japanese sweets and crackers made with rice flour, and rice vinegar, which is used in salads and for preparing sushi rice.

In ancient times, rice growing was considered a religious act; the Japanese emperor still performs several traditional Shinto ceremonies to bless and protect the rice crop each year.

Rice seedlings grow best when submerged in water. In Japan, seedlings are transplanted from the seedbed to a rice paddy. This used to be done by hand, making the process extremely time-consuming. During the rice-planting season, people worked in all sorts of weather, straight through from dawn to dusk. Often neighbors would help plant each other's fields, and farm villagers often were bound by a strong sense of community.

By the mid 1970s, almost all rice fields in Japan were planted by rice-planting machines, which made the process about five times faster than the old method. In recent years, the number of people working solely as rice farmers has decreased; more farmers now have jobs other than tending to rice fields.

According to a 2003 article in The New York Times, Japan limits its rice imports to 770,000 tons, less than 10 percent of its needs. Because of high tariffs -- which were meant to protect Japanese farmers -- locally grown rice ends up being much more expensive than American rice. Many city dwellers would rather pay less for the imported varieties.

After World War II, rice, along with other food sources, was in short supply in Japan. The government implemented land reforms, taking land away from landowners who did not farm and giving it to tenant farmers.

During the 1960s, when manufacturing became more dominant in the Japanese economy, many farmers started to move to the cities in search of the higher-paying manufacturing jobs. In 1960, 13.4 million people worked in the farming sector. By 1995 that number had fallen to 3.4 million. Today, only about 5 percent of the population still farms.

The average age of a farmer in Japan is over 60, and news that Japanese youth are fleeing family farms for the allure of big cities has been widely reported.

Those still working the land contend that the virtues of rice farming and its cultural importance to the nation far outweigh economic and political challenges.

Sources: Asia Times, BBC News, CIA Factbook, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal.

Related Links

Japanese Rice
Japan-guide.com is a Web site produced in Japan that is dedicated to providing current information about traveling and living in Japan. The site includes an extensive travel guide, a living guide for residents and a large resource section, including this guide to the role of rice in Japanese customs.

NOVA: "Japan's Secret Garden"
This episode of the PBS program NOVA originally aired in December 2000. It chronicles a year in the life of the wildlife and people around Lake Biwa, Japan, showing an annual cycle that has continued unchanged for thousands of years. The site includes the article "The Miracle of Rice."

The Japan Times Online
An English-language newspaper from Japan, The Japan Times was founded in 1897 and continues to put out a daily paper as well as several weekly papers and other publications.

JapanCorner: Rice
This history of Japanese rice comes courtesy of Benihana, a Japanese restaurant franchise in the United States. The site also includes instructions on how to cook the rice and information about Japanese culture, cuisine, lifestyle, festivals and language.