Cultivating Rice and Votes: The Institutional Origins of Agricultural Protectionism in Japan

Article excerpt

We explore in this article an institutional foundation of agricultural protectionism in Japan, a country long recognized as resisting international pressures to open up its rice market. Using out qualitative analysis of postwar politics of agricultural protectionism and a simple formal model, we argue that farmers in Japan have stronger incentives to mobilize electoral support for the governing party in multimember district systems than in single-member district systems, because the marginal effects of mobilization on policy benefits are different under these electoral systems. Out empirical findings corroborate this claim and provide implications for the gradual changes in Japan's farm policies occurring after the electoral reform in 1994.

KEYWORDS: electoral systems, protectionism, agrarian politics, mobilization, natural experiment, SNTV, MMD, Japan


In this article, we explore an institutional foundation of agricultural protectionism in Japan, a country long recognized as resisting international pressures to open up its rice market. (1) Despite the fact that the Japanese government still protects rice farmers from international competition by prohibitively high tariff rates and nontariff barriers, (2) there has been a sequence of gradual changes in Japan's farm policies since the early 1990s (e.g., Davis and Oh 2007; Honma, George-Mulgan, and Godo 2004; Shogenji 2006). Specifically, Japan's farm policy has shifted its target beneficiaries from part-time farmers to full-time counterparts who are willing to increase the efficiency of farm production. In late 1993, the government authorized minimal access to imported rice and later pushed to increase average domestic farm acreages and enhance the productivity of rice faming. The Rice Policy Reform Charter (Kome Seisaku Kaikakru Taiko), adopted in late 2002, set an acreage threshold for the provision of subsidies, and small farms were excluded from the protective policy package. Entry barriers into farming were relaxed, and modern managerial entities (e.g., corporate ventures) were allowed to cultivate rice paddies alongside landowning farmers. Furthermore, the producer prices of rice have become increasingly subjected to market forces.

Scholars and the media tend to attribute these changes to changing international environments; specifically, they regard them as consequences of the 1994 adoption of the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture (e.g., Davis and Oh 2007). While we do not necessarily disagree with such a view, we argue that changing domestic incentive mechanisms also matters. Specifically, we point out that these changes took place in the period after the 1994 Lower House electoral reform and argue that this overlap is not a coincidence. When Victorian Britain made a transition from multimember district (MMD) to single-member district (SMD) systems, the Corn Laws were abolished and the trade policy became gradually oriented toward free trade (Cox 1987; Grampp 1987). Our analysis suggests that similar, institutionally rooted changes are taking place in Japan.

We acknowledge that studies of the impact of political institutions on protectionism are hOt new. Their primary focus, however, has been placed on how much policymakers are susceptible to lobbying pressures under alternative institutional arrangements (e.g., Karol 2007; Milner and Rosendorff 1997; Nielson 2003; Park and Jensen 2007; Rogowski 1987). (3) The existing explanations about Japan's changing farm policies, which we noted earlier, also focus on how much international pressure has helped policymakers deal with resistance from farmers. These studies have assumed, often implicitly, that farmers' ability to overcome the collective action problems and the intensity of their rent-seeking efforts is determined exogenously and independently of political institutions.

We argue that different electoral institutions provide farmers with varying incentives to mobilize votes for the party that provides them with protective measures. …