Japan's 'sacred' rice farms rotting from inside

Japan's 'sacred' rice farms rotting from inside

RYUGASAKI, Japan - Shuichi Yokota may be the future of Japan's struggling rice industry.

The 38-year-old is about half the age of most growers and he relies on cutting-edge technology to cultivate vast paddy fields that eclipse the bulk of the country's rice plots.

And Yokota doesn't fear opening up to foreign competition - taboo in a place where rice is a sacred cow that is protected by subsidies and massive tariffs.

His farm in Ryugasaki, a community north of Tokyo, has ballooned more than five-fold in 15 years into an operation spanning 112 hectares (275 acres) - almost 30 times bigger than the tiny commercial rice fields commonly found in the area.

"This is simply the consequence of retiring farmers asking me to cultivate their rice paddies for them," Yokota said.

"I am one of very few full-time farmers in this area, and the people who were retiring didn't have anyone in the family to continue growing rice. But they don't want to sell the land."

While many of Japan's farmers get by with centuries-old farming methods, Yokota and his colleagues share workload information and data such as temperature and water levels - monitored by sensors installed in each paddy - on their smartphones.

Yokota may be an accidental giant among rice growers, but some are betting that people like him are the best hope for fixing an inefficient system, with wider calls for a shake up of Japan's cossetted agricultural sector.

Prices have tumbled as Japan's rice consumption has halved in 50 years, and there are fears the sector is rotting from the inside despite - or some say, because of - decades-old protectionism.

Ageing farmers are also facing fresh competition, with the country's largest supermarket chain Aeon jumping into the rice business.

"The situation is extremely serious - this is the dawn of a very difficult time," said Yoshito Yamada, a 66-year-old farmer in the northeastern city of Kitakata.

Rice reverence

Whether it is a bed for a piece of raw fish, an essential component of almost every meal, or the key ingredient in making sake, rice is Japan's unparallelled staple food and enjoys a revered status.

Hundreds of years ago it was a currency, a symbol of wealth and power, and a ritual offering that still forms a key part of the native Shinto religion, as well as tradition-bound Sumo wrestling.

"Nothing gets done here without rice," said Sachiko Goto, head of the Tokyo Sushi Academy, a chef-training school.

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