The year was 1959. The culprit was Super Typhoon Vera, the worst storm to slam the island nation in recorded history. It crashed into Japan’s southeastern coast and raged northward, ripping right through the same region that endured the terrible earthquake and tsunami on March 11.
The experience of Vera and the reaction to it may hold lessons for today, as Japan begins a lengthy and expensive rebuilding effort—possibly with the assistance of American farmers.
This month’s disaster was of course unprecedented. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that it was the worst catastrophe to hit his country since the end of the Second World War. The full extent of the devastation isn’t yet known, but it appears to involve losses of more than 10,000 lives and tens of billions of dollars in material goods as well as the ongoing risk of a nuclear meltdown.
Japan is a great nation and it will remain one. Yet it will require assistance from the United States, if only because we’re such important trading partners.
We can help with one of life’s necessities: food.
Initial reports suggest that Japan’s agricultural damage is limited. The country is in the northern hemisphere, just like the United States, so it too is emerging from winter. That means it hasn’t lost fields of crops that were close to harvest. The planting season traditionally begins in April and May.
But the planting season will be anything but normal. A lot of farmland still lies below water. Drained areas may prove unproductive because of salt in the soil. In the prefectures of Fukushima and Ibaraki, the government has detected high levels of radiation in milk and spinach.
So Japan will need a lot of help to feed itself.
Keep in mind that it needs a lot of help to feed itself in an ordinary year. The country imports most of what it eats. Almost 60 percent of its caloric intake comes from abroad. American farmers and ranchers sold food worth more than $13 billion to the Japanese last year, including almost a third of all the corn we exported.
One of the reasons why Japan buys so much from the United States goes back to that typhoon more than half a century ago.
Master Sergeant Richard Thomas of the U.S. Air Force saw firsthand how much damage the storm had done to livestock producers in Yamanashi prefecture. He took an idea to an official at the American embassy: How about bringing some hogs from Iowa to Yamanashi?
What happened next became known as the Iowa Hog Lift or the Yamanashi Hog Lift. Several Iowa farmers with help from the state of Iowa and the USDA gathered together three dozen hogs— thirty-four sows and two boars from four lean-meat breeds—and loaded them onto an Air Force plane bound for Japan.
Within three years, these hogs had produced about 500 progeny. Nine years after the lift, when the last of these original hogs had died, officials put the figure at half a million. These animals had literally given birth to Japan’s modern hog industry. Today, their descendants continue to thrive and they’re eating a lot of corn that’s grown in the United States.
They also served a diplomatic purpose, bringing together a pair of countries less than a generation after they had been at war. Today on the grounds of the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines stands the Bell of Friendship—a gift from the people of Yamanashi. When floods ravaged Iowa in 1993, the Japanese sent $300,000 in charitable donations.
Not bad for an investment of 36 hogs. It’s possible both to do well and do good.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was in Yamanashi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the hog lift. The cherry blossoms were beautiful and our hosts were generous. None of us, of course, had any inkling of the horror that would be a part of Japan’s future.
A glimpse at our past, however, gives us reason for hope.
Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans on a NE Iowa family farm. Tim volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org