TOKYO -- After decades of intense debate, Japan may be within days of finally opening up its rice market -- or blowing up its new coalition government.
With the deadline for negotiations on the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade just a week away, the various subsidies and trade barriers protecting domestic agricultural markets have become inflammatory topics throughout the world.
This is nowhere more true than in Japan, where rice is the basic component of the diet and a critical bastion of self-sufficiency, as well as a symbol of the country's unwillingness to open its own markets to imports, even as it seeks new markets abroad.
Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa urged the members of his seven-party coalition government yesterday to approve a complicated proposal by Friday that includes small, initial imports of rice, followed, after six years, by potentially unlimited imports subject to a high, sliding tariff.
"Japan, which benefits from the world's free trade system, should bear a commensurate burden," Mr. Hosokawa was quoted by the Japanese news media as having said to coalition members. Several of Japan's large and well-organized farm lobbies immediately voiced strong objections to the prospective agreement, as have governors from rice-growing regions. A series of tense sessions of the Diet (Japan's parliament), punctuated by demonstrations on surrounding streets, are expected as the issue comes to a vote.
Most of the members in Mr. Hosokawa's political alliance will likely go along with the proposal, but retaining a protected rice market was a critical condition for the participation of the Social Democratic Party, the largest coalition partner. A small but decisive bloc of the party may drop its support for Mr. Hosokawa.
That, in turn, could undermine the slim majority the coalition holds in the Diet, wrecking efforts to complete a popular but politically controversial plan for political reform and a series of emergency proposals to reinvigorate Japan's ailing economy. Moreover it could derail current bilateral talks between the United States and Japan on opening the Japanese market to more imports.
The vote on rice comes at a difficult moment for the Hosokawa administration. Although it continues to enjoy record popularity, its long-term predecessor, the Liberal Democratic Party, has become an obstructionist opposition party, adeptly clogging up passage of legislation.
Meanwhile, a barrage of bad business reports has put pressure on the government to shift its attention to the domestic economy and away from political reform and international trade.
Nevertheless the prospects of a breakthrough on rice have been improving steadily. Japan's strong dependence on foreign trade made its highly visible protection of domestic rice production economically self-defeating by encouraging retaliation. As a result, opening the market is widely supported by the country's export-oriented manufacturers, as well as urban consumers forced to pay six times the U.S. price for a critical food.
As Japan has been transformed from a rural, agricultural society to an industrial one, the relative economic importance of rice has declined. Rice now accounts for less than 1 percent of gross domestic product. Few young people want to be farmers, and thus in every prefecture homes and parking lots are being constructed amid the small, inefficiently arranged rice fields.
And, despite its ubiquitous presence at their meals, the Japanese now eat about 40 percent less rice than they did three decades ago, with bread, potatoes and other starches steadily gaining popularity in its stead.
Still, rice maintains an extraordinarily powerful hold on the country. Until recently, rice provided a potential bulwark of nutritional self-sufficiency against an outside world many Japanese feel is hostile.
Perhaps most importantly, rice-growing areas have a disproportionately large impact on national elections.