TOKYO -- Japanese rice exports climbed 28% on the year to 5,589 tons for the six months ended in June, an all-time high for the first half, but growth is slowing as often exorbitant prices drive consumers to cheaper alternatives.
The largest share went to Hong Kong, with shipments up 24% to 1,906 tons, Japanese government data released Thursday shows. Singapore ranked second at 1,400 tons, a 25% increase.
Exports have grown as Japanese cuisine has taken off abroad, meeting demand from consumers seeking rice that is safe and flavorful. Kobe-based Shinmei, the country's largest exporter with a roughly 30% share, ships around 3,000 tons of rice overseas annually. Subsidiary Genki Sushi's conveyor-belt sushi restaurants have expanded into Hong Kong, and the company's high-end Sen-Ryo sushi chain uses Japanese rice.
Agricultural cooperative JA Minaho teamed with Shinmei to begin exporting to China this year. Wholesaler Kitoku Shinryo's rice shipments to China grew 10% on the year to 690 tons in the first half.
The National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, better known as Zen-Noh, aims to lift rice exports by around 60% to 4.5 billion yen ($41.1 million) between this fiscal year and fiscal 2019. But growth this year trails last year's 51% rise as farmers shifted their focus to rice for animal feed. And with domestic prices climbing, it has become tougher to secure rice to send abroad, according to Kitoku Shinryo.
The Japanese government lumps rice for export and for animal feed together in the same category. But it subsidizes only the latter, since World Trade Organization rules forbid direct export subsidies. This money, which can reach as much as 105,000 yen per tenth of a hectare, has spurred many rice farmers to prioritize fodder.
Another issue is that Japanese rice is pricier than that grown elsewhere, owing to higher production costs on top of shipping expenses and fees paid to local wholesalers. At one Chinese supermarket, a 2kg bag of locally grown rice is priced at 54 yuan ($8.12), while the same quantity of Koshihikari rice from Japan's Toyama Prefecture costs nearly three times as much at 148 yuan.
Even with rice exports hitting a record high, Japan still ships out less than 1% of what the U.S. does. Shinmei President Mitsuo Fujio said "10,000 tons a year is a very small amount," echoing a common lament in the market. Competing effectively with major rice exporters such as Thailand and India will require bringing prices down by cutting production costs.