TOKYO -- After growing tenfold in a decade, Japan's rice exports are set for further growth, with an especially keen eye on the world's largest consuming market, mainland China.
Japanese government data shows that exports to China grew 76% year on year to 524 tons in 2018. The growth rate towers over Japan's total outbound rice shipments, which grew 17% to a record 13,794 tons.
China still accounts for only 4% of Japan's exports, due to Beijing's strict rules of allowing rice processed only at certain authorized facilities. Until last year, the only Japanese port with China's green light was Yokohama.
But after a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last May, Beijing approved milling facilities in Hyogo and Hokkaido prefectures.
China consumes 20 times more rice than Japan and is a crucial market for Japan's rice growers, as they hope to sell more overseas this year.
JA Minaho, an agricultural cooperative in the town of Nyuzen, Toyama -- a prefecture on the coast of the Sea of Japan -- targets an 18% increase on the year to 1,000 tons, reaching 31 countries through a partnership with leading rice wholesaler Shinmei.
The coop's rice exports soared from just 21 tons in 2009 -- the first year of overseas shipments -- to 850 tons in 2018.
"If we want to earn income using our rice fields at a time when Japan's population is declining, we are going to focus on exports, even if prices are a bit cheaper," said the president of the organization.
JA Minaho is looking to take advantage of the newly relaxed Chinese rules on ports, taking its rice to the nearer port of Kobe, in Hyogo Prefecture, for quicker shipping than from Yokohama, an official said.
For nearly half a century until 2017, Japan intentionally cut back rice production and slashed acreage under a government program to prop up prices. Exports remained less than 2,000 tons a year in the 2000s. Today, farmers are eager to grow the staple food for foreign markets.
The top two markets are Hong Kong and Singapore, which absorbed a combined 60% of rice from Japan. The value of rice exports rose 18% to an all-time high of 3.7 billion yen ($33.4 million) in 2018, representing a 10-fold surge over the preceding decade.
In October, rice wholesaler Kitoku Shinryo and the Hokuren Federation of Agricultural Cooperatives sent the first Shanghai-bound shipments of the Yumepirika variety from a port in Hokkaido, the northernmost main island.
Exports are expected to keep growing. China in November said it will give the go-ahead to rice from Niigata, a major rice producer, partially lifting the suspension it placed on foods from a wide zone around Fukushima following the 2011 nuclear disaster.
"We want to start with Shanghai and market our rice to other cities as well," said Genichi Jinde, the president and CEO of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations.
The growing international markets for Japanese rice include Mongolia, which took in 336 tons last year, up 66%. Shipments to Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates doubled to 49 tons and 37 tons, respectively.
Rice is still a minor export item for Japan compared with such foods as scallops and beef, for which shipments came to 47.6 billion yen and 24.7 billion yen last year. But under its optimistic target, Tokyo aims to more than triple exports of rice and rice-based products -- like rice crackers and sake rice wine -- from 31,000 tons last year to 100,000 tons in 2019.