February 8, 2014 7:19 am JST

Japan's farm, marine exports seen returning to growth in 2013

TOKYO -- After two years of decline, Japanese exports of agricultural and marine products surged an estimated 20% on the year to more than 500 billion yen ($4.85 billion) in 2013, thanks to growing appreciation of the country's cuisine abroad and tail winds from a weaker yen.

     By the end of November, the figure had already reached 493.7 billion yen -- a 22.5% boost over the first 11 months of 2012 -- ensuring a full-year tally above 500 billion yen for the first time in five years.

     Government data due out next week may even show last year's exports topping the record 532.8 billion yen marked in 1984.

     Farm goods, which account for just under 60% of agricultural and marine product exports, were up 16.9% during the January-November period.

     While the value of exported rice came in low at around 1.6 billion yen overall, products for direct consumption shot up about 40%.

     Indicative of this growth, major wholesaler Kitoku Shinryo will upgrade a Ho Chi Minh City depot to a branch, perhaps this spring. A company official notes "great latent demand for Japanese rice" among wealthier classes in other Asian countries.

     In volume terms, fruits have enjoyed a particularly significant rise. Japan exported 140% more apples, for example, in the first 11 months of 2013 compared with all of 2012. Persimmons jumped 70%, while pears rose by a margin just shy of 20%.

     Eager not to miss out on demand in neighboring countries, governors of Aomori and other fruit-growing prefectures have headed right to supermarkets in other Asian nations to hawk their sweet produce.

     When the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact materializes, more agricultural products from abroad will hit the Japanese market. Domestic farmers must take steps to raise yields and expand exports. And while demand at home is falling as the population shrinks, foreign markets, and especially those in Asia, offer a bounty of business opportunities ripe for the picking.

     But the 2013 data is sure to raise other questions -- surrounding, for instance, the government's goal of doubling farm and marine exports to 1 trillion yen by 2020.

     "Japanese farmers are still not intent enough on changing their fields to meet the standards of trading partners," says Managing Director Yasuaki Takeda of Japan Good Agricultural Practice, a group that works to ensure the quality of produce.

     Farmers will also increasingly need Tokyo to help by pressing trade partners to ease restrictions. While the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster's negative impact on exports is fading, part of the 2013 uptick in exports owes to the effects of weaker yen rather than higher volume -- and as of December, 41 countries and regions were strengthening import restrictions.

     Because of measures by some countries in the name of keeping out disease and pests, Japan now has difficulty exporting such goods as cherries, grapes and cucumbers to countries including the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.