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Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012

COUNTERPOINT

Japanese rice from Down Under forges new hope from historical links


Special to The Japan Times

"I think I can create a farming environment that can give hope to Fukushima farmers."

These are the words of Takemi Shirado, the driving force behind a unique enterprise. With its headquarters in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, less than 50 km from the stricken reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the Iwaki World Tambo Project (IWTP) has been reaching out. Perhaps "reaching out" does not do justice to Shirado and his colleagues, who have gone as far as Queensland, Australia, to plant Japan's favorite variety of rice, Koshihikari, for marketing back in Fukushima.

Rice cultivation is a A$1 billion-a-year industry in Australia, with virtually all the country's crop being grown in the fertile Riverina district of New South Wales, some 600 km west of Sydney. Nonetheless, the tropical Burdekin River Irrigation Area in northern Queensland is now the site of a fascinating experiment.

There, where farmers can produce four crops a year, Shirado planted a mere 100 grams of Koshihikari seeds in three test plots in the southern hemisphere summer at the beginning of this year. He then expanded that for his first crop, which yielded 30 kg of rice at the end of May.

With thousands of Fukushima rice-growers now left owning land affected by the March 11, 2011, tsunami and/or subsequent radiation contamination, the chance to grow rice in Australia in the traditional Japanese way — in flooded paddies — is a godsend from across the Equator.

"Farmers in Fukushima have lost their land, hope, dreams and future," Shirado has said in comments reported widely in the Australian media. "Once Iwaki farmers come here (to northern Queensland) for three months, their minds and bodies will be refreshed."

Last December and January, I spent three weeks in the Riverina town of Leeton, population about 7,000, which is the hub of Australia's rice-growing industry that this year produced 900,000 tons of the grain in total. Virtually all the rice grown in and around Leeton is sold to a cooperative named SunRice that prepares it for sale and markets it.

While in Leeton I visited a 200-hectare rice farm whose owner, Barry Kirkup, has all the seeding and fertilizing done by airplane, and the irrigation controlled by GPS technology. Varieties of rice have been developed in the Riverina that require only 40 percent of the water normally used in cultivation, and Kirkup's super-efficient farm has had many visitors from Japan and China eager for knowledge to take home.

However, the fragmentation of traditional rice cultivation in Japan, where the average farm size is 1.8 hectares, mitigates against such economies of scale.

In addition, something that drains the Riverina's appeal for Japanese growers is the pooling into one SunRice basket of rice from all around the area. That's because Japanese people are exceedingly fussy about where their rice comes from and what special taste qualities it has. Farms near the Pacific coastline of Fukushima, however, will not be producing any marketable rice in the foreseeable future.

As I was leaving Fukushima for Tokyo after a visit there in June, I was determined to return with some local sake. In a shop by Fukushima Station that sells local product, I grabbed a bottle of superb Daishichi, written with the characters for "big" (dai) and "seven" (shichi).

Later, being naturally cautious about the integrity of products from the contaminated region, I checked the company's website before indulging at home. I was relieved to learn that the makers of Daishichi in Nihonmatsu, only 60 km from the reactors, draw their water from a well hundreds of meters deep, making it perfectly safe to drink. The rice is now not from nearby crops they traditionally used. Instead, it comes from Aizuwakamatsu, a part of west-central Fukushima Prefecture unaffected by radiation, and from Toyama Prefecture that borders the Sea of Japan.

Back in Australia, however, as bountiful as the annual harvest may be, it is thanks to a pioneer Japanese cultivator named Isaburo (Jo) Takasuka that there is any commercial rice-growing at all.

Takasuka, the son of a Matsuyama clan samurai in Shikoku, arrived in Melbourne in 1905 at age 40, and the following year planted his first rice crop. After a number of failures in trying to adapt the unhulled rice he had brought from Japan to Australian conditions, he produced a crop in 1914 on 80 hectares of land granted to him by the Murray River at Swan Hill, Victoria.

That same year, he showed up in Leeton with his son, Sho. By 1924, eight farmers there and in nearby Griffith were harvesting rice. Takasuka was to stay on Down Under until 1939, when he returned to Matsuyama, dying there on Feb. 15, 1940.

The Leeton cooperative was formed in 1955, but it wasn't until two decades later that large-scale Asian immigration bolstered demand, turning rice cultivation into a major domestic and export industry. Now northern Queensland is getting into the act — as the result of a tragedy thousands of kilometers away in Japan.

The primary task for Shirado and the IWTP is to build up a seed bank, and by this month they expect to have a ton of seed. After that, the bank should expand exponentially. But will the Queensland-grown rice satisfy finicky Japanese consumers in Fukushima? Well, the fact that it is planted and grown by Fukushima farmers will go a long way to producing a positive result.

"When I heard rice was being grown in Australia, I wondered what sort it was," said an unnamed Fukushima resident on ABC Australia's popular "Landline" TV program on July 15.

"Then I made rice balls with my own hands with it and ate it, and I thought it wasn't any different from Japanese rice. I felt his (Shirado's) compassion in the rice when I ate it."

It is clear that there is a spiritual factor ensconced in the cultivation and preparation of rice in Japan, and that once this is incorporated into the story, the taste test is all that remains.

An ABC news report on July 16 showed people in Fukushima sitting around a table eating the Queensland-grown rice. With smiles all around, they agreed: "It's delicious."

The IWTP website devotes a lot of space to ties between Fukushima and Australia, highlighting what is an amazing project linking two agricultural regions — one stricken, the other eager to come to the rescue for all the right humanitarian and commercial reasons.

It will be a very long time before the Burdekin region can challenge the position of the Riverina in rice production. But if it concentrates on rice specially produced for the Japanese consumer, then the value added on to the product will be far greater than on rice sold to a mass-scale cooperative.

"There is no changing the past," states the website, "but we have the means to change the future. It will take at least 300 years for the environment in Fukushima to return to its pre-March 11 state. Everything we do now is for the next generation of children."

Shirado and his group of far-reaching farmers are doing something to shape that future with their "crops of hope." All that remains is for the Japanese government to ease restrictions on the import of foreign rice — if, indeed, this rice can be called "foreign."

After all, what is government for if not to promote and cherish just such a linking of lives?



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