Japan’s rice harvest is a time of festivities celebrated even by the emperor as farmers reap the rewards of four months of labor in a 2,000-year-old tradition. Not this year, with radiation seeping into the soil.
Farmers growing half of Japan’s rice crop are awaiting the results of tests to see if their produce has been contaminated by radiation from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s wrecked Fukushima atomic plant. Rice, used in almost all Japanese meals and the key ingredient in sake, is being tested before the harvest starts this month. Radiation exceeding safety levels was found in produce including spinach, tea and beef.
Shigehide Ohki, a 61-year-old farmer near Tokyo, this week passed the first hurdle after a preliminary round of tests showed no trace elements of radioactive cesium, the main source of concern. Losing his crop of about 80 tons of rice would “destroy” him, he said.
“I’m very relieved and I’m telling customers that I can be 90 percent certain my rice is safe,” said Ohki, who’s been farming rice for 40 years in Katori about 190 kilometers (118 miles) south of the nuclear station. “But I’m also saying it’s not the end yet because we still have to pass the main part of the survey after the harvest.”
The government is asking 17 prefectures in eastern Japan to test farmland for radiation, an area accounting for 54 percent of domestic rice production. If initial surveys show a certain level of radiation, wider tests will be carried out, the government said.
Authorities will ban shipments from areas where they find rice containing cesium exceeding 500 becquerels a kilogram, the government’s legal limit for grains. Any contaminated produce will be destroyed.
“Rice may be the next product where contamination will be discovered as it’s being grown in tainted soil and water,” Yoko Tomiyama, chairwoman of the Consumers Union of Japan, said in an interview. “Higher radiation levels have been detected in prefectures beyond Fukushima.”
Authorities in Chiba on Aug. 9 said that the first five of 49 preliminary tests, including Okki’s farm, didn’t detect radiation in rice, according to the prefecture’s website. Rice from 277 areas in the prefecture will be tested after harvest, the website said.
Japan will produce 7.7 million tons of rice in the 2010-2011 marketing year, becoming the world’s 10th-biggest grower, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s forecasts. The nation is also the 10th-largest consumer, according to the USDA’s website.
Aeon Co., Japan’s biggest supermarket chain, will start testing rice sold under its Topvalu brand for radiation, according to the Asahi newspaper today, citing an unidentified person at the company. A detailed plan hasn’t been decided yet, said Masaru Tanabe, a spokesman at the retailer.
Food containing radioactive cesium or iodine that exceeded the official standards has been found as far as 360 kilometers from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station, which began spewing radiation after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. About 160,000 residents near the plant have been evacuated.
Consumer concerns over food safety deepened after the government, which repeatedly made assurances products on the market are safe, confirmed last month that beef tainted by cesium was sold in stores.
Five months after the nuclear disaster, Japan is still struggling to build a centralized system to check for radiation contamination of food, leaving local authorities and farmers conducting voluntary tests.
‘Only Been Reacting’
“The government didn’t have guidelines to prepare for possible problems and has only been reacting to developments, so the farmers were getting worried,” Masaki Takagi, the head of the farmer’s cooperative in Takomachi in Katori district. “It should’ve confirmed the safety of the soil before we started planting. We had to do the testing ourselves.”
The government advised local authorities in April to carry out soil tests to determine areas safe for planting, said Osamu Yoshioka, an official who advises on testing farm produce at the Ministry of Agriculture.
“As far as rice is concerned, we asked for testing in two stages because it’s the nation’s staple,” Yoshioka said. “It’s a random survey because we can’t check everything. I don’t think we’ll see much tainted rice in harvest.”
Farmers in Fukushima were allowed to plant rice on 67,720 hectares of paddies outside the evacuation zones around the Fukushima plant, accounting for production of 363,680 metric tons this year.
“Planting was done in April and May, after the level of radiation in the air had fallen,” said Shigeo Uchida, an agronomist and senior scientist at National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba. “Generally, cesium doesn’t spread much from soil to grains.”
Trading in rice futures on the Tokyo Grain Exchange was suspended this week after prices surged by the daily limit, when the bourse relisted the grain for the first time since 1939. Rice rose by its maximum limit the next day on concern radiation will spread to crops and curb supply.
Japan is self-sufficient in rice production and the government protects domestic growers from foreign competition with a tariff of 341 yen ($4.35) a kilogram on imports. The tarriff is eight times the latest international price for rice quoted by the International Monetary Fund.
The government plans to store 880,000 tons of domestic food-rice in its reserve at the end of June next year, unchanged from a year earlier.
The importance of rice goes beyond its status as a food staple. Cultivating the crop is so labor-intensive that families often pooled together to grow and harvest each other’s crops and combined their irrigation systems. It was this shared experience that may have fostered the notion of “wa,” or harmony, that remains a key element of Japanese culture today, academics say.
Japan’s first emperor is also said to have been a farmer and could communicate with gods to secure a good harvest, according to Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and author of “Rice as Self.”
Every November, the emperor has a meal of newly harvested rice in one of the most important festivities in the royal calendar, according to the Imperial Household Agency.
This year, farmers like Ohki will lead prayers for a safe harvest.
“I was stunned when spinach grown in my area was found to be tainted,” Ohki said last week, while watching testers hack off rice stalks on his farm to carry out checks. “I had finished planting by then and the future suddenly looked very bleak.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Langan at email@example.com