Japanese Farmer Tests Freedom with Asian Demand for Food Projected to Soar, Traditional Controls May Be Modified. RICE AND `FOOD SECURITY' IN EAST ASIA

Article excerpt

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. …