How can an entire country run out of butter?
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When Japanese pose for pictures, instead of saying "Cheese!" some say "Butter!" These days, butter is more likely cause for frowning, since it is being rationed.
Grocery stores are limiting each customer to a maximum of two packages of butter. Last week the government announced its latest plan for "emergency imports" to ease shortages of the spread.
The butter shortfall stems from several factors. They include stressed out dairy cows, aging farmers, rising costs, and trade and price restrictions.
The official reason for short supplies of milk used to make butter is lower output due to unusually hot weather last summer. Fresh milk sells for more per ton than butter. So dairy producers are said to be giving butter short shrift and, in grocery stores, butter sections are often bare on shelves crammed with various margarines and other spreads.
Dairying is among many Japanese agricultural industries in decline. Farmers are retiring without heirs willing to take over their farms. Prices for feed and fuel have surged, cutting into profits.
Japan had 417,600 dairy farms in 1963. As of February, it had 18,600.
Japanese farmers, like those in the U.S. and many other countries, traditionally have been protected from foreign competition. That's to ensure a degree of food self-sufficiency.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to modernize farming and "drill deep" through the country's bedrock of bureaucracy and vested interests. But his government has made little headway.
Tariffs on imports of farm produce average 23 percent. Overall, the government pays a subsidy to dairy farmers of 12.8 yen (11 cents) per kilogram for butter. It pays 15.41 yen (13 cents) per kilogram for cheese.
Dairy farmers like Shinjiro Ishibashi, who is raising about 300 head of cattle, count on the support. Japan's farm lobby remains a stronghold for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. While talking up sweeping reforms, it is also reassuring farmers it will continue to look after their interests.
"Mr. Abe says he will preserve our 'beautiful Japan,' and I expect him to do it," said Ishibashi, alluding to Abe's constant praise for Japan's traditional farming lifestyle.
Critical thinking challenge: Why are dairy producers less motivated to produce butter?