Japan, in efforts to crack China rice market, hits on heat-and-eat


Is there much point in Japan trying to sell rice to China, especially as that country is the world's biggest producer of the grain? Japan thinks so, and wants to, but is having a problem getting around inspections procedures, Chinese tastes and the price of its products.

Now, Japan believes it has a solution with packages of heat-and-eat rice. It is touting the product as free of chemicals and other pollutants, and handy as a standby for cooking.

In a recent promotion blitz in Shanghai, Koji Inoue, director-general for the Food Industry Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, pitched the product to Chinese reporters and food industry officials as the answer to parental concerns about the health of their offspring.

“Needless to say, it tastes great and is also safe,” Inoue told those gathered at the event held inside a cafeteria at a department store in the city.

“Parents worrying about the well-being of their children know no borders,” he added sagely.

As part of the campaign, Japanese officials also handed out 100,000 packs of retort cooked rice to raise the product’s profile in China and among Chinese tourists traveling in Japan.

Some packages were distributed in the commercial district near JR Tokyo Station as well as Narita Airport, Kansai International Airport and other Japanese sites favored by Chinese travelers between January and March.

Others were given out in Beijing, Guangzhou and other major cities.

For the current fiscal year, more public relations events are scheduled at convenience stores and department stores in Beijing, Shanghai and three other Chinese cities.

The government is also targeting Chinese tourists making port stops in Japan during luxury cruises.

Japanese efforts to gain a foothold in the vast Chinese market date from when Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister.

Koizumi, in office from 2001 to 2006 and one of Japan's most popular leaders in the postwar period, was keen to expand exports of Japan’s agricultural produce, seafood and other food products.

The current administration headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to raise the value of those combined exports to 1 trillion yen ($9.1 billion) by 2019 from 450 billion yen in 2012.

Of the targeted figure, rice and processed rice products account for 60 billion yen.

Aside from the revenue that the exports would generate, Tokyo needs to address a growing surplus of the grain in the domestic market.

This is due to population decline and a diversifying diet that has seen consumption of the grain falling steadily, by about 80,000 tons annually at current rates, according to the farm ministry.

Demand for rice as a food staple stood at 7.66 million tons over the year from July 2015.

In its efforts to find a market for its surplus rice, Japan cannot ignore China, where the grain is a staple diet in its southern provinces.

To crack the Chinese market, Japan needs to resolve a number of challenges.

The first is the Chinese government's insistence that imports of polished rice from Japan must first be treated at two designated facilities in Kanagawa Prefecture.

When Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou in September 2016, he proposed holding working-level talks with Beijing in the hope of advancing Japan’s plan to market rice in China.

As little progress has been achieved since, Japanese officials are placing their hopes on packages of heat-and-eat rice as the first product to offer to reach out to Chinese consumers.

A key advantage of rice in retort pouches over regular polished grain in terms of exports is that it is exempt from quarantine and other clearance procedures due to its classification as a processed food.

But the main drawback of Japanese retort cooked rice is price.

A 200-gram pack retails at 17 yuan (about 280 yen or $2.50), nearly 10 times the price of the the same amount of ordinary rice grown in China.

“It tastes good and is safe, but its price bothers me,” said Wang Ping, a 35-year-old woman who sampled the product at the event in Shanghai.

Another challenge is taste.

In a sales promotion in Shanghai in March, the Japan External Trade Organization offered a variety of dishes using Japanese retort cooked rice, having enlisted the help of 12 city restaurants.

Junichi Honda, the head chef at the Sun with Aqua Japanese Dining & Bar, one of the establishments that collaborated with the JETRO, said the product does not meet his exacting standards.

“If I am asked about whether our restaurant will continue to use it, our answer is no,” he said, adding that taste, rather than price, is the problem.

His restaurant uses the coveted Japanese brand of Koshihikari rice grown in China.

“The quality of the rice grown in China has improved significantly even over the past year or two,” he said. “The retort cooked rice is hardly a match.”

But Honda suggested that it could be used in food delivery, a service where demand is growing.


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