#19 From rock bottom to success? by Hiroshi SAKURAI
“Direct negotiation with the Prime Minister on the withdrawal of the Gentan policy”
In October 2013, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo gifted Dassai to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In April of the following year, he also gifted Dassai to U.S. President Barack Obama, who was visiting Japan. The Prime Minister has always been kind enough to use Dassai during various events, on all sorts of occasions, even at the “Cherry blossom viewing party” which made the headlines in Japan this year... It's good publicity for us, and I'm thrilled to have Dassai used on such important occasions. Some people say that I have been asking him directly, or that I am one of his support, but this is a complete misunderstanding. I only heard about the gift to the US and Russian presidents through the news. I think he chose Dassai because he is from Yamaguchi Prefecture, although we are located in different electoral districts. It isn’t like we knew each other for some time. However, we have met, and it was in April of 2013.
Back then, production for Dassai was not keeping up with the demand. I wanted to increase its production, but there was a shortage of Yamada Nishiki, the only rice we use for Dassai’s production. So I started going around saying that the current Gentan policy (i.e. “gentan seisaku”: consolidating rice field, decreasing the overall rice production) that included the sake rice was wrong. If there is a shortage of it, why not allowing farmers to farm it? For example, when there was a study group or conference of bureaucrats and the private sector, I would go there and complain about the lack of rice. I would complain for example that, even though I was trying to increase the export of sake to foreign countries, the policy enforced by the Ministry of Agriculture was in the way. The Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) started to complain back at me, saying said it was the first time someone would ever hear such a thing right in front of their eyes.
I guess that's where the Prime Minister heard from me because soon after I was asked to go meet with him and explain. At first, I refused. I refused because they wanted me to come along with the sake producer’s association. If I went along with them, I knew they would not let me speak. Then, they asked me to come along with a few companies at least. I refused again. The third time, they finally agreed to let me come alone. I was actually amazed they would even consider it. We met in the president's office at the LDP headquarters. I appealed to Prime Minister Abe, saying that if the Japanese government was truly trying to sell sake abroad, it has to be some good sake. But to make good sake, producers need good rice. However, there was a lack of Yamada Nishiki rice. We have the land and there are people who want to make it, but the government won't let us make it because of the current policies. Prime Minister Abe seemed to be convinced that it was a shame.
That was the end of our meeting but it seems he promptly gave some instructions because soon after, the gentan policy was withdrawn for sake rice. I think he really was listening to me properly. After that, the Ministry of Agriculture started to get pretty serious about producing Yamada Nishiki. However, at the same time, some bad guys started buying all the Yamada Nishiki rice from farmers, using our company’s name. In October 2013, I published an open letter under my name to all farmers growing Yamada-Nishiki and to all sake producers who use it, stating:
“As you are probably aware of the current situation on the market, I hereby ask every one of you: please, do not purchase Yamada-Nishiki rice from dubious routes.”
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