Thursday, April 24, 2008

Japan's Food "Crisis"

As I noted before, Japan has been suffering a food crisis for some time now, perhaps decades, due to its declining rate of food self-sufficiency - only 40% of Japan's calories are grown locally. This has mostly escaped the notice of the foreign press until the recent round of food crises, which have caused all manner of journalists to notice that those haughty Nipponese may face a rise in food prices.

Of course, since until now those same foreign journalists have been cheerfully ranting on about how food in Japan is so expensive that they can't even buy a boiled egg and a beer, it hardly seems reasonable for them to be bragging now about Japan's new crisis of food affordability. Particularly when articles from newspapers as widely differing as The Age (Melbourne) and The Times (London) both cover the same element of the crisis - a sudden lack of butter, which in Japan (as elsewhere) remains a luxury. I note that both these articles contain the same message - that Japan is a harbinger of the problems facing other nations. It's almost as if the two articles were run from the same script, isn't it? Those whacky journalists with their special sense of uniqueness!

So, why the sudden attention to the issue? Japan has been suffering deflation for 10 years, so food prices have not risen while those in the rest of the world have, and their staples remain cheap and easily available. The bleating of ignorant food reviewers aside, Japanese food is cheap and Japanese people eat considerably less calories than the rest of the developed world, making them much safer from the kind of food price shocks which will affect other countries. Of course, they have to import a lot of their food, particularly wheat, but a small fact these newspapers haven't bothered to note is that food exporting nations aren't necessarily protected from international price shocks by dint of their overproduction. The two most efficient exporters - Australia and New Zealand - are efficient by dint of their low levels of protectionism and efficient farm practices, but this exposure to world markets means that locals in those countries pay international prices for food they export. The price of milk in New Zealand has been skyrocketing, and as the price of rice and wheat climbs it is likely that Australia will experience the same problem with domestic stocks of those staples. Australian producers of biscuits often change the local ingredients to match their much larger markets, the latest example being the removal of iodized salt from local biscuits because Japanese import conditions require it. A small country like Australia cannot afford two sets of machinery to produce export and locally-produced biscuits, so everyone eats the Japanese recipe.

As I noted in a previous post here, Japanese rice production is inefficient and its farm sector languishing, and there is actually a lot of room for efficiency gains and improvements in rice production here which could easily increase Japanese food self-sufficiency, at least to UK levels. Given the Japanese Government's penchant for doing nothing, and its cosy relationship with the farm co-ops, it is likely that it will take more drastic measures than merely a desire to reform to encourage these changes. The coming round of food shocks could serve as exactly the impetus that Japan needs to reform its agriculture sector, perhaps encouraging the return of young people from the cities to the country to take up farming. If such were to happen, the coming round of food shocks could serve to revitalise rural areas like Tottori and Shimane which are currently dying. Rather than restricting food availability and choice as our foreign journalists so gleefully predict, it may lead to a flowering of local agricultural industries which will widen and extend food choices in this country. The key to all this, of course, would be the dismantling of Japan's current system of protectionism and rural-government cronyism, which is a bigger task than perhaps the current government can handle. But perhaps in the future it can be done...

The really interesting question, from my perspective, is the attitude of the journalists reporting on this. Why do they take such a gleeful tone, and gloat so merrily over the apparent collapse of Japanese food choices? Were the journalists predictions to come true, Japanese people would lose a wide range of western foods, and become more culinarily conservative and inward looking. Why does this please journalists who, when they are not reporting on this issue, are constantly bemoaning Japan's conservativeness and inward-looking culture? These articles are rich with a kind of jealous insecurity, in which the Japanese are seen as a super-wealthy, haughty and aristocratic race of industrialists. We poor folk in the rest of the world mine and farm their raw materials, and buy the manufactured goods they make with those raw materials. Any change in world conditions which would disadvantage an economy with a largely industrial, non-agricultural base will disadvantage Japan and advantage countries like Australia and the US; and our insecure, small-minded journalists are pleased to think of the possibility of those inscrutable, rich Asians being brought hoist on their own petard. Maybe its just paranoia from long exposure to the stupidity and mendacity of journalists, but I don't think the central play of these stories is the nature of Japanese agriculture.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. I've been living in Japan for 28 years now and I have seen how foreign journalists (primarily anglo-saxons) always have their own agenda. They only see what they want to see, report what is fashionable or politically correct to report, and they always seem to feel obliged to take a condescending and patronizing tone when it comes to reporting on Japan's current affairs.
But it is not only in Japan. I have noticed exactly the same attitude from anglo-saxon writers when they write about France (articles in the Guardian Weekly, in the Economist for instance). Is it something with anglo-saxons or just with journalists in general ?
Jalousy and resentment seem to be underlining everything they write. Sad, really. And pityful.
As for the Japanese food crisis, I think it will be a wake up call for all Japanese, who used to be self-sufficient and can become self-sufficient again. There are so many fields that are not cultivated anymore, but hopefully, it won't be for long. Among all the countries of the world, I believe Japan will be the least touched by the food crisis, in the sense that people still remember how to make do with much less, lots of people all around the country still know which wild plants to eat in order to survive, and last but not least, there is a strong sense of solidarity among the population which means that things will go orderily in case of food shortages, if it should happen here too. Butter is a luxury and it is not a big deal here to make without it. It will be more of a problem if there is a miso shortage.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Sir S said...

I agree! I also think that the media take this same biassed crappy approach towards reporting on China, and so now I assume that their reporting of any country outside their own is ignorant and fitted to a script.

10:34 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home