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Commodities

Australian rice finds favor in Japan as cheaper option

Price surge for domestic varieties and TPP-11 quota drive import trend

 Picky Japanese diners are warming up to rice from Down Under.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- Eateries and consumers alike in Japan are turning to rice from Australia as a thrifty option for their main food staple, shunning domestically grown varieties that have been more expensive for four years running.

Fast-food restaurants in particular are embracing the import as a way to cut costs to cope with rising wages.

"Australian rice goes well with our sauce, so we started using it," said an executive at Ten Corp., a Royal Holdings group member that runs a tempura rice-bowl chain. Its outlets have been mixing imports from Down Under into Japanese rice, up to 50-50 at some locations, for about a year.

Japanese consumers are notoriously picky about their rice, generally preferring to use long-grain varieties from many other parts of Asia mixed into a dish. But the majority of Australian rices are short grains, just like Japan's celebrated Koshihikari variety, and many locals find it suitable for eating plain.

Seiyo Food-Compass Group, a Tokyo-based operator of about 1,900 company cafeterias, restaurants and other locations, began using some Aussie rice last year. To deal with the surging prices for Japanese rice, Ootoya Holdings, which runs a namesake home-food restaurant chain, began serving smaller portions for extra rice orders last autumn, while mixing Aussie varieties in its healthier rice option that includes brown rice, barley and corn. Noodle chain Mitsuwa also uses Australian imports for its rice offerings.

Grocery stores are part of the trend as well. Last year, Seiyu supermarkets began selling an Australian variety called Uraraka that was imported by trading house Sumitomo Corp. A Tokyo market for commercial buyers offers the Opus from Down Under for 1,350 yen ($12.45) per 5 kg bag -- 20% cheaper than Masshigura, grown in Aomori Prefecture.

Rice cultivation in Australia began when a Japanese farmer brought seeds in the early 1900s. SunRice, which has incorporated Japanese milling technology, is the sole marketer of exports.

Japan opened its rice market after the 1993 Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations, and has been importing 770,000 tons of the grain a year -- although only about 100,000 tons are used as table rice. Consumers gradually warmed to more-affordable foreign varieties, particularly when domestic counterparts became pricier.

Japanese rice prices fell in fiscal 2014 due to a rich harvest, and imports from Down Under dropped. But prices on domestic varieties have soared 40% since, and Aussie rice coming to Japan skyrocketed 55 times to upward of 30,000 tons a year. Australia became second only to the U.S. for imports of table rice into Japan, accounting for 30% of this segment, up from 10% previously. The country is maintaining the 30% share for auctions this fiscal year.

Under the 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership that took effect at the end of 2018, Japan has set a quota just for Australian rice, which will increase to 8,400 tons a year after 12 years. This means imports of the food for direct consumption will likely jump 10%.

To counter the rising tide of imports, Japan's agriculture ministry will boost its reserve of domestic rice. Government purchases of the grain grown in different parts of the country will climb by 5% to around 210,000 tons a year, accommodating a request from the farm co-op. This will tighten supply of domestic varieties, helping to keep prices intact, the government's thinking goes.

But this plan has met with criticism. "Already there's not enough affordable rice grown in Japan, and taking more rice out of the market means they are telling us not to use rice," said an official at a producer of ready-to-eat food products.

Meanwhile, other rice-growing countries are eyeing Japan's budget-conscious consumers and businesses. After pulling out of the TPP, which would have given a 70,000-ton quota, the U.S. is now pinning its hopes on new bilateral trade talks with Tokyo.

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