Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fishery; double game.

This is from today’s Sunday Project (Tsuiseki). It is an article of common knowledge that Japanese bureaucracies are able to control indirectly policy output in ways that other governments (such as Australia) simply would not allow. But the Sunday Project today opened my eyes to the extent that one Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fishery (MAFF), will go in order to control public discourse (and thus policy) on issues it considers important. Important, that is, to the farm lobby, as the MAFF reports on food self-sufficiency (Jikyuu-ritsu) can not be concerned by a fair and balanced contribution to the public debate.

Anyone who reads the Japanese newspapers regularly would know this term. And some might even remember the number that goes with it, 40%. Jikyuu-ritsu forty percent is almost a mantra for the MAFF, and via their reports it now featured widely in news, commentary and even children’s textbooks (complete with ‘40%, that is low (bad)’ implicit in the text. Indeed, there is a question about whether this figure is indeed low and whether that is ‘bad’, but first a note about the somewhat unusual manner of calculation.

Japan, like Korea (one assumes for similar reasons), uses the calorific method of calculation, rather than the near universal cost-base calculation. This method divides the number of calories an average Japanese consumes by the amount that Japan produces. The reason is simple enough, 40% is lower than 66%, the figure produced if the cost-base calculation were to be used instead. (Another way of saying this would be that the Japanese mostly buy Japanese produce but that the produce bought is mostly low-calorie yielding. Again this is due to the oddity of the calculation method, which factors out meat, milk and eggs that is produced using imported feed.)

But the MAFF has deliberately chosen the calorific method anyhow. Perhaps this is because 66% simply is not sufficiently panic causing. Especially since the MAFF has repeatedly stated that Japan’s self-sufficiently rate is the lowest in the world (they mean lowest in the OECD, but it quickly becomes confused in the media, thanks Chris). This claim would not be true if one were to use the cost method, with the UK scoring much lower in this case. Even the minister in charge, Ishiba noted on the Sunday Project program, that this method of calculation was somehow odd or confusing.

It is clear then that the MAFF is trying to steer Japanese policy toward building up (subsidizing) domestically produced farm produces. While this kind of protectionism might go well over with the agricultural lobby, it is costing Japan – agriculture is after all just 1% of Japan’s GDP (see, Mulgan at the EAF.) Worse still the argument for a high Self-Sufficiency score is itself pretty poor. If one thinks about it, a country only needs high scores on self-sufficiently during a major war. Such a war is not likely any time soon, so Japan should be putting its economic priorities first. Moreover, there is a good argument for liberalizing Japanese agricultural markets for strategic reasons. Signing an FTA with the US, or Australia for that matter, which covered farm products would not just give an Japan’s economy a boost, but would also help to lock-in American (or other 3rd countries) security interests in Japan. While it is true that Chinese farm exports to Japan are growing steeply, if Japan is really worried about this issue as one of national security then supporting domestic farmers is not the answer. Japan is going to have to dependent to some extent on someone for its food security, it will have to make a choice.


  1. Hi there Eris,
    I may be doing a PhD next year at Adelaide Uni with Professor Jain on Jap politics, and was just wondering how long you've been studying at Meiji Uni for, and does Adelaide Uni provide for it, or is it all self-funded? I am looking to head over there for research myself

  2. Japan cannot possibly have the lowest rate in the world. What about Singapore?

  3. Chris,
    Good point. They mean the OECD, but it quickly becomes 'in the world' as far as the mass media are concerned.