Terrie's Take: What if Japan Couldn't Import Food, Bluefin Tuna, Yakuza, Construction, Tweet Stocks, and Herbs!

Terrie's Take - AkihabaraNews.com

Terrie’s Take is a selection of Japan-centric news collected and collated by long-time resident and media business professional Terrie Lloyd. AkihabaraNews is pleased to present Terrie’s learned perspective; we all could use another take on the news - here’s Terrie’s:

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Terrie’s Take on March 10, 2014


  • What if Japan Couldn't Import Food?


  • Bluefin tuna catch to reduce 50%
  • Yamaguchi-gumi suffers member losses
  • One third of December construction tenders draw no bids
  • Stock predictions through tweet data
  • Kampoyaku maker moves herb production to Japan

What if Japan Couldn't Import Food?

A good rallying call for the nation's conservatives is Japan's food security, and its dependence on imports for 60% (on a caloric basis) of food consumed. This is a topic that repeatedly surfaces whenever agricultural imports deregulation is discussed and will become even more popular if the TPP trade talks ever get back on track. The most recent news on the topic was just a few days ago, when the Cabinet Office released the results of a 3,000-person survey that shows that 83% of respondents were concerned at some level about the security of the nation's food supply.

OK, so survey results from the government, which has a large number of legislators who are against trade rules relaxation, is probably biased. Still, it was interesting that more than half the respondents, 53.8%, said that they think Japan's staples should be produced locally, even if this makes those staples a lot more expensive. We'll see if they still think that once the yen drops another 10%-20% and consumptions taxes have doubled -- but for now it shows that the Japanese public is feeling vulnerable. Either that, or the Cabinet Office did the survey exclusively among farming communities... ;-)

That got us to thinking about a "what if" scenario. What if Japan, because of global war, contamination, contagion, or extreme yen devaluation, suddenly couldn't get its normal food supply from abroad? Would this mean that Japan wouldn't be able to feed itself?

Thinking through this, we assume that the most basic denominator in determining Japan's ability to withstand an external food shock would be whether its population could at least survive for the period that it takes to plant out more crops and use these to become self sustaining. In this case, we thought a good base point would be the last time Japan was self sustaining, which was during the Edo Period (1603 to 1867) when the country was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. It was at this time that the unit of rice measurement, the "Koku", was actively used to define a person's wealth.

One koku is equal to about 150kg of milled (white) rice, and was considered the amount necessary to sustain an average adult. It's interesting that they understood this, because if you divide one koku by 365 days, you get 410gms, which represents about 1,470 kCal. Then, if you check the calorific intake required for an adult of about 150cm and 60kg (males a bit more, females a bit less), then you wind up with almost the exact same number for a person to maintain their weight. So this measure really was based on a human requirement.

Of course, people at that time ate more than rice, such as fish and vegetables. But in terms of calories, probably most of their intake was from that one staple. Just recently the consumption of bread in Japan exceeded rice for the first time, but if there was a food emergency, then shipments of wheat would be disrupted, bread would mostly disappear, meat and dairy from the nation's cattle herds would be in short supply, and people would quickly revert back to a rice-fish-and-condiments diet. So if they did that, how long could they survive?

Apparently Japan will have about 2.55m metric tons of rice stockpiled by June this year, a 15-year high, and this will be added to the 7.6m or so tons that will be produced this current year. Doing the math, and allowing one koku per Japanese per year, you will find that the nation can feed itself a sustenance level ration of rice for about 5 months. Although this is not enough to sow for the next season if a food emergency occurred at the wrong time of year (late Fall for example), allowing for the fact that the nation has warehouses brimming with non-perishables, probably Japan could in fact survive until rice plantings were boosted to the previous high -- which was 14.5m tons in 1968. This would be almost enough to feed the nation (actually about 96.7m people) for a year if consumed at the rate used during the 250-year Edo period.

So when you add in local other cereals, vegetables, fish (Japan's fishing fleet accounts for 15% of the global catch), poultry, and additional sources of nutrition, the reality is that Japan is not as critically exposed as the conservatives would have you think.

BTW, in doing our research on Edo eating habits, we came across a very entertaining article on the recycling that went on in the Edo period. There was recycling of everything imaginable, including paper, metals, clothing, oil, wax, and even human feces (more politely, "night soil"). Believe it or not, and this is a new one on us, merchants would pay inhabitants of particularly healthy parts of town to get their night soil to use as fertilizer to improve the performance of green tea plantings.

Bluefin tuna catch to reduce 50%
Concerned by studies that show a dramatic decline in the wild Bluefin tuna population, the Fisheries Agency has decided to set quotas for Japanese fishing fleets at 50% of the 2013 quota. Last year, a massive 2.65m tons of tuna was harvested from the Pacific alone, a record, and about 60% of the entire global catch. Another 13,400 tons were caught in the East Atlantic and 1,750 tons in the Mediterranean. ***Ed: To really get serious about protecting fisheries stocks, Japan needs to pass laws preventing fish wholesalers from buying fish outside official channels. Side deals by numerous small unregulated sellers are just as damaging to fish stocks as catches by the big players.** (Source: TT commentary from dw.de, Mar 9, 2014)

Yamaguchi-gumi suffers member losses
Police are scratching their heads over why the number of members belonging to the top Yakuza gangs is falling. Membership numbers across the nation fell to an all-time low of 58,600 last year, down almost 5,000 from 2012. The top crime syndicate, the Yamaguchi-gumi, alone saw a drop of about 2,000 members. "Experts" (whomever they may be) apparently say that the new policing laws on gang members have made the Yakuza lifestyle less attractive than it once was, and has caused recruiting to dry up. ***Ed: Kids are also a lot better fed and looked after materially these days, so rebellious teens are in shorter supply than they once were.** (Source: TT commentary from theguardian.com, Mar 6, 2014)

One third of December construction tenders draw no bids
Higher costs of raw materials such as steel and concrete, a shortage of trained workers, and a reluctance by construction companies to train more, appear to be at the heart of a dearth of construction firms willing to bid on new projects. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (MLIT), about one third of all tenders made public in December, 2013, met with no bidders. After a savage restructuring in the industry over the last 10 years, coupled with the increasing retirement of aging workers, the construction industry workforce is now one third smaller than in 1997, and about 20% of workers are already over 60 years old. ***Ed: Does this mean the Olympics, the new Tsukiji fish market, or the Tohoku tsunami barrier will be built by Filipino workers? The mind boggles...** (Source: TT commentary from reuters.com, Mar 2, 2014)

Stock predictions through tweet data
Interesting new big data service from NTT Data launched last week -- a stock sentiment index created from posts on Twitter by Japanese users. The company says the index comes from data drawn from tens of millions of posts, with algorithms to associate sentiment with actual companies. The company plans to sell the index to professional investors as they look to figure out what the market swings will be the following day. ***Ed: No word yet as to whether the index is actually accurate, but a landmark study on this technology done by Johan Bollen at Indiana University in 2010 and since corroborated by research at Stanford University, found that in fact there is a correlation between Tweet sentiment and market swings.** (Source: TT commentary from asia.nikkei.com, Mar 7, 2014)

Kampoyaku maker moves herb production to Japan
Traditional Chinese herbal medicines ("Kampoyaku") are highly popular in Japan, and about 400 different herbs are approved for medicinal use (and medical insurance reimbursement). As the population ages and becomes more discriminating about product quality, kampoyaku producer, Ryukakusan, has announced that it is bringing a large part of its herbal production back to Japan from China, in order to provide more consistent supply and pricing. The company will increase its contracted plantings by 300% to around 10m sq. m. in Hokkaido. Among the herbs it will focus on are cnidium rhizome, for nasal relief, and Perilla (Shiso) for fevers. The market for kampoyaku is increasing steadily, and was worth JPY131.2bn in 2012, up 30% from 2007. (Source: TT commentary from asia.nikkei.com, Mar 7, 2014)

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That was Terrie's Take.

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