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Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Japanese farmers want to boost exports

AFP , TOKYO

Long a symbol of protectionism, Japanese agriculture is finding attack the best form of defense.

Japanese farmers are on a drive to boost exports of expensive fruits to growing rich neighbors such as China, as Japan seeks free trade deals in Asia and sees domestic consumption of its juicy delicacies plunge.

Upscale shoppers abroad are proving they are willing to pay higher prices for Japanese fruits, which are renowned for their impeccable shape and taste and grown traditionally with few chemicals, trade officials said.

The southern Japanese prefecture of Saga hopes to export strawberries for the first time to China, where they are expected to sell for twice or more as much as locally grown varieties.

"The Chinese market looks promising but uncultivated yet," said Hirokazu Tajima, a municipal official in charge of farm products distribution.

The prefecture is eyeing Shang-hai and other coastal areas for its strawberries and is undaunted by Chinese tariffs of more than 20 percent. But lengthy red tape is still in store to enter the Chinese market, Tajima said.

"We are in anxious suspense for the approval as we want to export strawberries by Chinese New Year which falls on Feb. 9," he said.

Many Asians have the custom of sending fruits as gifts and Chinese New Year is a big business opportunity.

Younger Japanese are increasingly preferring candy and other processed foods. Daily fruit consumption in Japan fell by more than 35 percent from 1975 to 124g per person in 2002, the government's latest nutrition survey says.

The Japanese have cited the care provided to their produce when defending the subsidies and trade protection allocated to agriculture, one of Japan's sectors that is most closed to foreign competitors.

By the same argument, Japan-ese fruits were until recently seen as too costly to be worth a more aggressive export push.

But "demand for Japanese fruits on Asian markets is growing as the number of high-income people is increasing," said Mari Izumi, who heads the export promotion office set up in April at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Possible free trade accords with Asian countries "could give [Japan-ese farmers] business opportunities if they can help lower tariffs and other barriers and open up sales routes," she said.

Japan only has free trade pacts with Singapore and Mexico, but the accord with Singapore excludes the sensitive issue of agriculture.

Japan's exports of farm, forestry and fisheries products came to ?278.9 billion (US$2.7 billion) last year, according to official data.

Shipments to China have jumped nearly 10-fold to US$300.9 million from 1989, with exports in the period up 33 percent to Hong Kong, 67 percent to Thailand and a full 267 percent to South Korea.

Asian countries accounted for 72 percent of the top 10 importers of Japanese farm and forest products last year, up from 59 percent in 1989.

Japan's top apple exporter is the northern prefecture of Aomori whose leading customer is Taiwan, especially after it acceded to the WTO in 2002.

Aomori now wants to send its apples to China, although officials said they have not moved more quickly because of the weak distribution system in China for potential fruit imports.

"Apple consumption has been plunging in Japan with young people preferring confectionery," an export promotion official said.

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