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Agriculture

Japan battles Chinese and Korean strawberry and whisky copycats

Government and industry set stricter regulations to protect premium brands

From strawberries to whisky, Japan is eager to protect the premium image of its produce. (Source photos by Kei Higuchi and courtesy of Fukuoka Prefecture)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government and Japanese companies are battling copycats in China and South Korea, taking steps to protect the integrity of "made in Japan" products, from strawberries to whisky.

The government, led by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the son of a strawberry farmer from Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, has revised the Plant Variety Protection and Seed Act. The legislation, which was partially enforced in early April, with some of the other regulations set to be effective next year, aims to better safeguard intellectual property pertaining to the development of new seeds.

"This will protect the brand value, the amendment of the law is highly appreciated," a representative of the Fukuoka branch of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, Zen-Noh, told Nikkei Asia. Fukuoka is the home of Hakata Amaou, a premium strawberry variety.

Following the amendment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries listed 1,975 varieties of fruits and vegetables developed in Japan whose seeds and seedlings are barred from being taken out of the country. The list includes many of Japan's best-known premium fruit, vegetable and grain varieties, including Amao strawberries, Shine Muscat grapes, Yumepirika rice and Beniharuka sweet potatoes.

"The cultivated area of Shine Muscat in China is much larger than in Japan," a representative of the agriculture ministry told Nikkei. In addition to China, South Korea also cultivates the Shine Muscat, which has been exported to Southeast Asia. He added that Japanese authentic Shine Muscat are having to fend off the copycats, which go for lower prices. "The strength of Japanese agricultural products lies in their high value. [The legal revision] has a great effect in that new seedlings do not flow [overseas]," the official stressed.

In addition to fancy grapes, Japan's premium strawberries are also grown in South Korea. The agriculture ministry estimates that Japan has lost 22 billion yen ($202 million) over five years due to leaks of seedlings overseas.

The government aims to increase the value of Japan's agricultural exports to 5 trillion yen by 2030. The ministry representative told Nikkei that the revision of the seed act will help with that effort.

Private companies are also fighting to protect the "made in Japan" brand. EY Japan, a branch of the global accounting specialist, is developing a blockchain traceability system that allows Japanese sake brewers to share information such as origin and delivery records with overseas consumers. The technology aims to differentiate genuine products from counterfeits.

The Sake Blockchain system will share the information on sake, including their ingredients and where they were brewed, as well as details on quality control along the distribution chain such as temperature records. With Japanese sake gaining followers overseas, counterfeit brews are becoming an issue for producers.

Yasuo Matsuo, an associate partner at EY Strategy and Consulting, told Nikkei the company is "continuously improving the functions of the blockchain [platform] and plans to increase the number of breweries that use it." EY also hopes to apply the system to agricultural products in the future.

Japanese whisky is another attractive target for counterfeiters, given its surging popularity among drinkers worldwide and the high prices they command.

In April, the Japan Spirits & Liqueurs Makers Association began using an official definition for Japanese whisky. In addition to distilling their products with water from Japan, producers must distill and bottle their products domestically.

Previously there was no official rule on what constituted Japanese whisky. Booze bottled in Japan that was distilled abroad has been sold as Japanese whisky up to now. Although there are no penalties for failing to follow the rules, the association hopes to avoid damaging the Japanese brand image, particularly abroad.

The head of the association, Hideki Kanda, said in a statement: "It is unfortunate, however, that in recent years there have been cases where brands that only use imported foreign whiskeys are being sold as "Japanese whisky," and cases where brands that do not meet the qualifications for "whisky" under the Japanese liquor tax law are being sold as "whisky" in other countries, sowing confusion among consumers."

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