May 2, 2008

Japanese Rice



I saw this interesting article in the Washington Post on Japanese rice. A few years back, I remember reading Francis Fukuyama, who argued that Japanese capitalism was different from American capitalism because nationalism played a much larger role in certain parts of the country's spending habits. According to Fukuyama, the Japanese didn't mind spending twice the price for Japanese rice because it was part of the national character. The Washington Post agrees:
As in much of Asia, rice is much more than a food to the Japanese and it is not really intended for export. It is a traditional symbol of plenty and a cultural touchstone.

It's an interesting phenomenon: Japanese rice is sitting unsold in warehouses while people around the world are starving and rioting, and yet the Japanese farmers are also in financial straights. The price of Japanese rice, along with the cost of production, is so high that even if they slashed prices drastically, it's unlikely that they would be able to sell their rice to the rest of the world that needs it.

Americans have the opposite problem in terms of culture. We love the idea of American products, but most American people won't take a more expensive American brand over a foreign brand unless there is a noticeable difference in quality. It's only been in the last couple of years that "buy local" and "buy [more expensive] organic" has caught on in the U.S. Most of the time we just go for whatever is cheapest, which explains why we remain a net-import country, and which may also explain why America has fallen behind in the whole movement to stem global warming and reduce carbon emissions.

Both systems have problems. On the one hand, you have the American system that McDonalidizes the entire cultural landscape and (some argue) sustains poverty in the developing world. On the other, you have a farming system that protects small farmers but keeps them small and inefficient and prevents them from growing affordable food for a world that could use it.

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