Post-Fukushima, Japanese rice loyalty withers

But the country fiercely protects its rice producers with importers having to pay a 778 per cent tariff

In the four months that Wal-Mart has been selling low-cost Chinese rice in Tokyo, the big US retailer has struggled to keep shelves stocked at some stores.

A Japanese chain, Beisia, also sold Chinese-grown rice for the first time this year but quickly ran out.

Kappa Create’s sushi restaurants have started to serve rice grown in California, while Matsuya, one of Japan’s biggest beef and rice bowl chains, has introduced a blend of Japanese and Australian rice. Daikokuten Bussan, which runs discount stores across the country, says it would carry foreign rice if it could get a stable supply.

Prompted by declining incomes, as well as fears about radiation from last year’s nuclear disaster in Fukushima, a major rice-producing region, a small but growing number of Japanese consumers and businesses are doing the unthinkable: openly abandoning their loyalty to expensive, premium-grade homegrown rice and seeking out the trickle of cheaper alternatives from China, Australia and the United States that make it into Japan’s heavily protected market.

“I don’t think many people would have considered buying imported rice in the past, but that might be changing now,” said Kana Saito, 29, a part-time office worker shopping in central Tokyo. She had wanted to buy a 2 kg bag of Chinese-grown rice, but it was sold out. “The label ‘domestic-grown’ doesn’t really have the same stature,” especially after Fukushima, she said.

Japan’s agricultural ministry, for now, says it is not considering an increase in rice imports, which are all but shut out by a 778 per cent tariff. Since 1995, the government has imported about 700,000 tons of rice tariff-free annually, most of which it diverts to uses that do not compete with Japanese rice, like livestock feed and emergency stockpiles.

Some imported rice has always been used discreetly by cheap restaurants, bento lunch makers and others, industry officials said. But for consumers to want to buy foreign rice to cook at home – or for major chains to openly switch to foreign rice – is a big shift, they said.

Now, the clamour for foreign alternatives has left retailers and restaurants fighting for the tiny amounts the Japanese government makes available for retail use, which came to just 10,000 tons last year, according to government records, a fraction of the 9 million tons of rice sold in Japan.

In a survey of 60 food companies by the Nikkei newspaper in March, 70 per cent said they would be interested in using imported rice if it were available. Ryo Kanayama, a Tokyo-based spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the retailer was ‘doing its best’ to secure more foreign rice.

Whether there will be a significant push by Japanese consumers or businesses for more foreign rice is still uncertain, and 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.

“If we do see Japan opening up the market to more foreign rice, it would be a big shift in postwar Japan,” said Toshiyuki Kako, an emeritus professor at the Kobe University Graduate School of Agricultural Science in western Japan. “It goes to show how far consumer attitudes have changed over the past years.”

In the United States, rice producers are at pains to say they realize the politics of the rice market, but that some easing is long overdue. The USA Rice Federation, which conducts sporadic taste tests in Tokyo, has said that most consumers here cannot tell the difference between homegrown and imported rice. “We’d simply like to see demand dictate where US rice goes, not the government,” said Robert Cummings, chief operating officer at the USA Rice Federation.

For farmers in and around Fukushima, the interest in foreign rice could not have come at a worse time. Last year, farmers there were just gearing up to plant a new variety of premium-grade rice, bred over 15 years from two top domestic rice strains and proudly named Ten No Tsubu, or the ‘Grain from heaven.’ Agricultural officials had hoped the new variety would tap into the country’s traditional penchant for high-grade rice.

But in March 2011, three tsunami-stricken nuclear reactors went into meltdown, rendering more than 18,000 acres of Fukushima farmland unusable. At harvest time, some of the rice was found to be contaminated, dashing hopes of a big debut.

“This rice we have is the best rice ever, yet I’m full of worry,” said one farmer, Katsuyuki Kuchiki, who says his family has cultivated grain about 40 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for nine generations. His harvest last year of the new rice tested negative for radioactive matter like cesium, and made it to market – but at prices far lower than he had imagined.

Screening equipment

This year, the region’s farmers sprinkled their fields with cesium-absorbing materials, and intend to bump up Grain from heaven production twentyfold. Regional officials will test every sack for radiation, using 3 billion yen’s worth of new screening equipment. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure the rice is safe,” Kuchiki said.

Still, their efforts may be lost on Japanese consumers. Although authorities assure consumers that homegrown rice is safe, there is widespread unease about rice grown in and around the disaster-struck region.

A broader concern is Japan’s deflationary economy, which has chipped away at incomes over the past decade and made consumers less wedded to expensive brands.

A study last year by the Japan-Cooperative General Research Institute, which is affiliated with the country’s national agricultural cooperative, shows a jump in sales of low-grade domestic rice and a decline for more expensive brands.

Experts say that younger and less affluent shoppers in particular are looking for low-cost alternatives. Also contributing to the trend is a move away from rice itself, especially among younger Japanese, as the traditional fish-and-rice diet gives way to bread, pasta and pizza. Per capita, the Japanese now eat half the amount of rice they ate in the 1960s.

“Continued deflation means incomes are falling, and so more Japanese are becoming not so picky about rice,” said Yasuhiro Fujimoto, chief researcher at the institute. That could test Japan’s heavy-handed support of its rice farmers, which has obliged consumers to buy domestic rice at many times global prices. Until recently, domestic consumers had seemingly been happy with the arrangement, paying up to 5,000 yen, about $62, for a 10-kilogram bag of Japonica, the variety of sticky, short-grain rice favored here – almost 10 times the going rate globally for the more common, long-grain variety.Even when a poor harvest caused a supply squeeze and forced Japan to import rice on an emergency basis in 1993, many consumers turned up their noses at it.

But nearly 20 years later, Beisia, Matsuya and Kappa Create all said that they had heard few complaints from customers about their foreign rice. “It turns out most customers didn’t mind, or even notice,” said Tetsuji Tanaka, a spokesman for Matsuya.

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