Winter had lingered too long in the neat little ricefields; its cold poison had stunted the growth of the rice-buds, shivering in huddled discouragement along the brown dikes, the poetic clumps of pine, the rude wayside temples to the fox. The crop had never looked too good; there was only a handful of fertilizer left for the old exhausted earth; the men were away, hacking at jungle, starving in rocky caves, plodding wearily across yellow plains. And then the cold had dug its fingers stubbornly into the hard frozen ground and had defied all the incantations and charms of the priests, all the helpless science of the experts and officials.
It was going to be a bad year. Submarines and bombers prowled in ambush in the straits between Japan and the imperial granaries; rice, wheat, beans, and sugar from Manchuria, Chosen and Taiwan were being blown into the seas; how few were the rusty freighters that managed to dodge and scuttle into the hungry ports. The tiny white rice-worms grew fat in the bursting warehouses on the rim of the Co-Prosperity Sphere, the shabby blank-faced survivors of the rice-raids lined up for hours to eat a handful of old brown rice mixed with pebble-hard beans and the flat coarse husks of unidentifiable grains.
There was no help for it. Japan was already eating slowly, with a shamed remorseful hunger, into the rice reserves, seed-rice, emergency invasion rice. Better eat it now than chance its going up in the irretrievable smoke of burning warehouse. But something had to be done. At any of those small open beaches, on any day now, the Americans might land. More and more soldiers were needed for that final, decisive battle; more and more rice was needed for those soldiers, rice stored in strategic depots, rice that had to come from somewhere and it could not come from the empire over the seas.
The civilian must eat less, starve if he must. Yesterday, therefore, the board of information announced that “in view of the prevailing conditions in the country, a reduction in the staple foodstuff ration by 10 percent shall be effected as a temporary emergency measure for a period from July to October.” The reduction will take effect on the 11th July throughout the country and on the 11th August in the major cities. The board also enjoined the people to “utilize anything edible” and to practice “perfect chewing.”
The trains out of Tokyo were full of sweaty grimy women on their way to the country; perhaps they might be able to buy a few more handfuls of rice, a sackful of sweet potatoes, from a secretive grasping peasant who would not be above a little rape in the inebriating darkness of a well-filled granary. Already rice cost 60 times, sweet potatoes 15 times, the fixed price. But it was better than listening to the children squalling with hunger, better than standing for hours to gulp down a tasteless mess of noodles in some alley shop. Perhaps if one brought along a shirt, the uppers of that old set of woolen underwear, a bottle of bootleg beer, the farmer would not be so insolent or so difficult. Winter was far away; better to eat now; who knew if the shirt would burn tomorrow?