Japanese consumers and businesses have been long known for their partiality to expensive, premium-grade homegrown rice, andrice farmers in Japan have been well protected by high tariffs on imports.
A small but growing number of them, however, are rethinkingtheir loyalty to such products due to declining household incomes and fears about radiation contamination from last year's nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture, one of Japan's major rice-producingareas, according to a recent New York Times report.
More and more Japanese people are now seeking the tiny amount ofcheaper foreign alternatives that the Japanese government makes available for retail use, the report said.
Citing official Japanese records, the report said just 10,000 tons of imported rice were made available for retail last year,a fraction of the average of 9 million tons of rice sold in Japan annually.
Since 1995, the report said, Japan has imported about 700,000 tons of rice tariff-free annually, most of which it diverts to uses that donot compete with Japanese rice, such as livestock feeds and emergencystockpiles.
Meanwhile, the Taipei-based United Daily News reported Saturday that Taiwan-grown rice is enjoying growing popularity in Japan.
A Council of Agriculture official was quoted as saying that Japanesegrain importers managed to obtain a quota to buy 440 tons of ricefrom Taiwan last year, a new record since Taiwan resumed rice exports to Japan in October 2004.
The following are excerpts from a special report in the Saturday editionof the United Daily News on Taiwan's rice exports to Japan:
Japanese grain traders have procured 1,500 to 2,000 tons of rice from central and southern Taiwan so far this year, business sources said.
Taiwan-grown rice has been sold to Japan at good prices, according to the sources.
For instance, a new rice strain dubbed "Kaohsiung 145" has been shipped to Japan at a price of US$1,600 per ton, or about NT$48 per kilogram, higher than the NT$24 to NT$26 obtained in the domestic market.
Lin Ting-san, a Japan-accredited rice examiner who has helped introduceJapanese rice traders to local farmers, said Japanese importers had been searching for fine-quality rice in China, Thailand and several other places.
"Although rice alternatives from those places tended to be cheaper than Taiwan-grown varieties, their quality mostly fell short of expectations,"Lin said. Major Japanese grain traders have therefore shiftedtheir orders to Taiwan, he said.
Chen Yen-ching, a Shennong Agriculture Award-winning rice farmer in Taoyuan County, said a Japanese rice trader purchased 80 tons of "Taiken 14" variety of rice from the northern Taiwan county in April this year.
"The texture and flavor of Taiken 14 are similar to premium Japanese-grownrice and suitable for household consumption," Chen said, adding that the Taiken 14 rice has been sold in Japanese supermarket chains and other retail stores.
Chang Chih-chao, head of the Hualien County Government's Agriculture Department, said a Japanese company has struck a deal with farmersin his eastern Taiwan county to purchase about 60 hectares of rice crops.
"Rice seedlings have been planted in several of our townshipsand villages," Chang said.
Another Japanese food company, Kanematsu Co., has ordered 500 tons of Shangshui rice from Tainan's Houpi District, agricultural sources said.
About 80 tons of Shangshui rice was shipped to Japan in February after passing Japanese inspection, and the rest of the order will be delivered in late September, the sources said.
While Taiwan-grown rice has been well received in Japan, the New YorkTimes report said whether there will be a significantpush by Japanese consumers or businesses for more foreign rice is still uncertain.
Moreover, the U.S. paper said, the Japanese farming lobby, which has strong political clout, remains opposed to an opening-up.
"Still, waning loyalties to homegrown rice could have immense implications for a country whose politics, society, economy and even national identity are entwined with rice cultivation," theNY Times report said. (July 21, 2012).
(By Sofia Wu)