Sunday, July 23, 2006

In the land of fresh rice ears of many autumns

I recently returned from my first visit to Japan, a country about which I have read extensively over the years. It was therefore no surprise to see paddy fields located in the middle of the urban sprawl of the Osaka area, one of them being tended by a presumably part-time farmer. Japan, I was told, has something like 2.2 times the population of the UK but half the useable land area. In the area where I spent most of my time, Fukuoka prefecture, there was more emphasis on value added niche crops like strawberries.

In the 8th century Nihon shoki [Chronicle of Japan] there is a famous passage that refers to Japan as 'the land of fresh rice ears of fifteen hundred autumns.' This is seen as example of the deep roots of agriculture among the Japanese. A former PhD student, now teaching in Japan, had negotiated with a farmer to obtain a supply of brown rice in return for helping with the planting.

Rice production in Japan and the Republic of Korea remains highly protected. Although the high tariff barriers will have to be reduced, I have some sympathy with demands to maintain them on cultural grounds. Japan is a unique blend of tradition and modernity and certainly the most distinctive place I have ever visited (and that includes remote ethnic minority areas of China).

There is an inconsistency in calling for the maintenance of some protection in Japan and pressing for its elimination in France. In both cases the attachment to a particular form of agriculture might seem to be sentimental, even though both countries have distinctive and much admired food cultures. I would maintain that the French way of life is less tied up with a particular pattern of agriculture than is often believed, particularly given that many French farms are large scale. But perhaps I feel an affinity with another island kingdom that I do not feel with France, a country I have never visited.

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