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Japan's farm and food exports seen breaking record in 2017

Health and quality serve as key ingredients of growing popularity

Foreign buyers are growing keener on Japanese food products as demonstrated by events such as this tuna auction at Japan's food export fair last year.

TOKYO -- Japan's agricultural and food exports likely notched a fifth consecutive record in 2017, with goods such as beef and green tea moving briskly thanks to overseas customers focused on quality and health.

Agriculture ministry data due out Friday is expected to show export values totaling roughly 720 billion yen ($6.4 billion) for the January-November period, up nearly 10% on the year. December tallies have held steady around 70 billion yen to 80 billion yen in recent years, suggesting the full-year figure will surpass the 750.2 billion yen reaped in 2016 and may even crack 800 billion yen for the first time.

Agricultural, forestry and fisheries goods propelled those healthy exports. Processed-food products like seasonings and alcoholic beverages previously drove the category, but now strawberries and other such agricultural items play a stronger role. Overseas sales are growing more important as the domestic market dwindles amid Japan's shrinking population.

Fatty Japanese beef is popular elsewhere in Asia. Though exports to some markets have been blocked due to past outbreaks of mad cow disease among Japanese cattle, Taiwan and Malaysia reopened their doors to the meat last year.

Green tea exports likely grew nearly 30% by value for the January-November period.

"In the U.S. and elsewhere, green tea is being received as a health food product, especially among the upper classes," said Soichiro Harada, president of Harada Tea Processing. The major tea maker, working to expand exports, has established tea plantations tailored to U.S. and Taiwanese regulations in areas such as agrichemicals.

Japan-made foods are enjoying steady growth in overseas demand. The country debuted a food export fair last year that drew over 2,800 buyer representatives from about 70 countries and regions. The three-day expo produced orders worth around 13 billion yen. For this year, the goal is set at attracting about 4,000 buyers.

Tokyo wants to lift agricultural and food exports to 1 trillion yen in 2019 -- a perhaps infeasible target, but one that should be aided by tariff removals.

Japan intends to have two major trade pacts enter effect in 2019: the new, 11-member version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership forged after the U.S. withdrew from the deal, and an economic partnership agreement with the European Union. Those deals would abolish the majority of members' import duties on Japanese agricultural products. Australia also looks to lift bans on importing Japanese beef and strawberries.

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