Ask anyone in or out of Japan what food staple they most commonly associate with the country, and almost no one will hesitate to answer. Rice is the undisputed staple of Japanese cuisine and the Japanese diet, and the star of a plethora of dishes and snacks – from sushi to donburi bowls, from sake to sembei crackers and beyond.
But many people outside of Japan might be shocked to learn that rice consumption is declining. In fact, it’s been declining ever since hitting a peak in 1962. There’s even a word for it: kome-banare (米離れ), or Rice Flight.
What’s driving this shift? And what are the implications for Japan’s economy and its food culture?
The History of Rice in Japan
Rice has been a part of the Japanese diet for around 3,000 years, with the earliest known evidence of consumption being found in Japan’s Jomon era (縄文時代; joumon jidai). The first plants were imported either from China or via Korea, and spread from the Ryuku island chain and the southern island of Kyushu north through the rest of the country.
The foodstuff is thought to have become a dietary staple starting in the 3rd century, during the reign of Princess Himiko. Meat and fish weren’t as plentiful as they are today, meaning more people relied on rice for their basic nutritional needs.
As a result, up until the Meiji era, control of rice crops and yields was considered necessary for controlling the country. Astute readers may recall from our article on Sakamoto Ryoma how the Shogunate fell in the 1860s thanks to an agreement to trade rice for guns. A shortage of rice could also destabilize the nation. In 1918, a series of riots called the Rice Unrest (米騒動; kome soudou) spilled out from Toyama and spread through the country. A booming economy led to increased consumption, with manual laborers requiring a liter of rice or more a day to sustain energy levels.
Japanese Rice: The Most Expensive Staple
Given the prevalence of rice and the great national pride attached to its production, you’d think that rice would be a cheap commodity good. However, the opposite is true: Japanese rice is more expensive per kilogram than rice produced in neighboring countries.
The reason why is simple economics. As an island nation, Japan doesn’t have a vast amount of arable land for growing crops, so its annual rice yield is limited by nature. Additionally, in order to protect farmers, the government has placed high taxes and strict import limits on foreign-produced rice. These were relaxed somewhat by the Uruguay Round in 1983, when Japan agreed to establish a “Minimum Access” policy to allow for more imports. However, the majority of this imported rice is used for animal feed and doesn’t end up on Japanese kitchen tables.
The low quantity and high cost of Japanese rice also makes it practically impossible to export except in small quantities. In the United States, for example, the “Japanese rice” sold at supermarkets and Asian groceries is produced and packaged in the states. (As part of its response to the Rice Flight, the Japanese government is attempting to change that via programs designed to encourage more exports.)
In other words, while Japan’s rice is indeed the pride of the country, you basically have to be in the country to enjoy it – and you’re paying a premium for the privilege.
Rice is an Enormous Pain in the Ass
This hints at one reason why rice consumption may be decreasing – i.e., it’s not as cheap as you might think. But as writer and lifestyle researcher Ako Mari (阿古 真理) writes for Toyo Keizai magazine, the flight from rice is more about simple economics.
First, says Ako, there’s simply more food available in Japan, and a greater variety. Fish and meat are easily accessible to people in even the poorer economic strata. Also, with members of both households working, more and more families find themselves eating out, where they have a rich variety of options from which to choose.
One of those options is pasta. Italian food is as popular in Japan as it is in other countries, and consumption of pasta is rising year after year. In 2017, Japan recorded record levels of pasta imports, importing some 130,000 tons of long pasta, primarily from Italy and Turkey. Domestic production of pasta is also on the rise, accounting for around 47% of consumption.
But another reason for the shift is that rice is just a pain in the ass to cook. Rice is traditionally washed first before it’s cooked, then it has to sit in the rice cooker for 30 minutes to an hour. No one eats an entire rice cooker of rice in a sitting – something that’s becoming more true as more people in Japan remain single. So most people preserve it in some way – usually as my own wife does, by dividing it up into single servings, wrapping it in cellophane, and putting in in the freezer. The entire ritual can take two hours or more.
Ako interviewed several Japanese professionals for the article who regard cooking rice as a tiresome waste of time. For the interviewees, it’s much more convenient to heat up pasta or udon, which can be prepared easily in single servings within a few minutes. One interviewee, who loves to cook, says he barely prepares rice due to time constraints:
Even when he works overtime and returns home around 8 or 9pm, he’ll cook and eat a meal. “There are times I’ll pick up something from the convenience store, but it’s sad eating that alone”, so he started cooking. He wasn’t that skilled at cooking, but he increased his reportoire by making all of the recipes from a recipe book, and now he’s challenging himself with various types of cuisine.
For others, it’s even easier to just grab food on the go. Many more Japanese are eschewing the traditional washoku style breakfast in favor of “morning sets” from coffee and bakery chains like San Marco, Mr. Donut, Dotour, or even Starbucks. People such as a 31 year old professional woman that Ako interviewed report making rice only once or twice a year.
This trend, says Ako, is marked among the younger generation (aren’t all trends?). While some 96-97% of Japanese men and women over 59 report eating rice regularly, 8.5% of 20-something women and a staggering 19.4% of 20-something men report not consuming rice at all. Many younger people report concerns around the impact of rice on their health. Japan’s modern economy runs, not on the manual labor of the 1910s, but on office workers, who worry that the double whammy of consuming large volumes of carbohydrate-rich rice and sitting on their asses all day will make them fat. That means more and more health-conscious Japanese are looking past rice for healthier alternatives.
Ako finishes with an observation that rice may be on its way to becoming a seasonal food. Consumption statistics show that people buy more rice in October, when the weather starts to turn cool. Her theory is that, with the advent of cooler temperatures, many turn towards traditional Japanese-style comfort foods, which include such staples as rice and miso soup.
Will Rice Flight Endanger Japan’s Sovereignty?
But what does this kome-banare, or Rice Flight, spell for Japan’s rice farmers – and for its economy in general?
The fall-off in rice consumption is staggering, and it shows no signs of abating. In 2015, Japan was already consuming half as much rice as it did in 1962 – down from 118kg per person a year to 54.6kg. That’s having an impact on farming and on government policy. Up until 2018, the Japanese government had a system of Rice Crop Reduction (減反対策; genpan taisaku), aimed at preventing the overproduction of rice, in which it would instruct farmers to limit the land they used for production in any given year. The government, however, officially ended this system last year, recognizing that it was no longer required
Farmers interviewed by NHK had no plans to increase rice production despite the lifting of the ban. The limiting factor is not just the decreased demand for rice, but the labor shortage: with more young people moving from the country to work in cities, and with Japan’s aging population, most farms can’t increase production even if they wanted to.
While the Rice Flight is impacting individual farmers, who find themselves turning to other crops, it’s also having a deleterious effect on Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate – i.e., the percent of food that Japan can grow to sustain its own population. While Japan still produces an astounding 97% of the rice that it consumes, the decline in rice consumption means the country is more dependent on imports than ever. Japan’s self-sufficiency rate has been stuck at around 39% for six years and shows no sign of budging. (Japan’s best self-sufficiency rating was 79% in 1960, two years before the rice flight began.) That makes Japan’s economy more susceptible to fluctuations and shifting alliances on the international political scene.
The likelihood that Japan’s lack of food independence will undermine its political sovereignty is low, but it’s still something that must gnaw in the back of the minds of the country’s politicians. With tensions between Japan and key Asian countries like China and both Koreas in a tenuous state, the country can’t politically afford to have such a high dependence on imports to feed its own citizens.
I think it’s accurate to describe Japan’s food economy as in a transition phase. While the Rice Flight has been decades in the making, infrastructure and laws are slow to change. Additionally, Japan’s population woes will likely hamper its efforts to make huge changes in its food infrastructure. It remains to be seen how the country will deal with this challenge moving forward.
Culturally, one thing is clear: the food that people eat in Japan will continue to drift away from the traditional image held by foreigners. But as we’ve discussed here before, Japan has a rich food culture that has already proven itself adept at integrating outside influences and making them its own. The Rice Flight means that an already diverse food culture will become even more so. As an unabashed fan of Japanese cuisine, I look forward to tasting the results.
What to Read Next
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 日本米がアジアに輸出されない理由. AllAbout
 米の輸出について. Nourin Suisanshou
 なぜ食べない！コメの消費が減り続ける真因. Toyo Keizai
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 食料自給率、６年連続で３９％ 「コメ離れ」止まらず. Sankei Biz