TOKYO Aug 10(Reuters Life!) - News that local governments around Japan will test rice for radioactive caesium came as a blow that rocked the nation's collective psyche, threatening to make its beloved traditional staple the latest in a long list of forbidden foods.
Announcement of the testing last week came amid public fears over radiation in food in the wake of the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years at the Fukushima plant in northeastern Japan, with excessive levels of radiation found in beef, vegetables, tea, milk, seafood and water.
But rice, most Japanese insist, is different.
"After the earthquake, there's been a prevalent feeling among people that you can make do with replacements... It doesn't have to be beef curry, it could be pork, or chicken, or the beef could come from another country," said Shigenobu Ikedo, a food safety expert at Miyagi University's School of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
"It's not quite the same with rice."
Rice production is believed to have started in Japan in 300 BC, experts say, with traditions associated with its cultivation an indispensable part of Japan's cultural character even today.
"The production of rice fostered a spirit of 'yui' (bonding), something that has lived on into the modern day," said Yoshihito Umezaki, former president of the Japan Fisheries journalists' association.
"We saw a surge of it re-awakening after the earthquake."
Japan's close ties to rice are symbolised by the relationship of the Imperial Family to the grain, with references to the Emperor offering the latest crop to the gods to pray for bountiful future harvests in the "Kojiki," which dates from the early 8th century and is Japan's oldest historical document.
There are references to a traditional "Niiname-sai," or New Harvest Festival, as early as 712 AD. Prior to the 7th century, the Niiname-sai was the start of the Japanese calendar year, said Masatsugu Kurabayashi, a professor at Kokugakuin University.
Despite these long traditions, though, rice consumption has fallen steadily, in part because busy young people are opting for quicker meals and often eating out, though older generations still follow traditional meals centred on a bowl of rice and multiple side dishes.
In 1965 the average Japanese person consumed 112 kg of rice per year, but this had fallen 45 percent by 2005 to 61 kg annually, the Farm Ministry said.
Foreign rice is not an option for many because, even though Japan's rice market is nominally open, sky-high tariffs -- in some cases, nearly 800 percent -- have kept consumption down to only 7.2 percent annually, the Farm Ministry added.
Though preliminary results out late on Tuesday showed no radioactive substances in samples of rice from Chiba, just east of Tokyo, many other parts of Japan still await results.
"Rice is our cultural heritage," said Shigehide Oki, a 61-year-old rice grower in Chiba, who like other farmers in his town, where the rice has been declared free of radiation, is waiting for permission to ship it.
"We put in so much effort to grow the rice so I fervently hope that our efforts will not go to waste." (Editing by Elaine Lies)