Japanese Rice Is Attracting Both Locals And Japanese Expats

Japanese rice is attracting both locals and Japanese expatsIn a food court in Singapore's busy financial district swarming with workers from area companies, a small stand selling "onigiri" rice balls made with Japanese rice is attracting both locals and Japanese expats.

"Word of mouth spread among locals as Japanese living here started to line up (for our onigiri)," said Tetsuya Nagayama, the president of the company that operates Samurice.

Juliana, 32, who frequents the Japanese food stand once or twice a week, said she likes the rice balls offered here as the rice used is firm and tasty.

Samurice opened its first outlet in 2014. Now, there are five branches, which cook about 36 tons of Japanese rice a year, equivalent to about 700,000 rice balls.

Amid a rapidly aging society and shrinking consumption in Japan, rice farmers and rice wholesalers are hoping to make inroads overseas, fighting off cheaper alternatives made in Asia or the United States.

Thanks to the recent Japanese cuisine boom around the globe, Japanese rice exports in 2016 increased almost five-fold since five years before, but there are still many hurdles to overcome.

The rise of rice exports is also being boosted by the increase of Japanese restaurants and food outlets.

Based on agriculture ministry statistics, there were 118,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan as of October 2017, a 30 percent increase from two years ago. In Singapore, Japanese restaurants make up a whopping 20 percent of the overall number of restaurants.

The nations importing Japanese rice are primarily from Asia, but trade is increasing with the United States, Australia and Britain.

Japanese agricultural equipment manufacturer Kubota Corp. is also a major player in rice exports. It exported 2,504 tons of Japanese rice in 2016, almost a quarter of the total of 9,986 tons exported from Japan.

Gen Takahashi, 49, of Kubota in charge of rice exports, told The Asahi Shimbun that the Japanese rice it used to sell outside Japan once had a reputation of being "pricy but not so tasty."

Rice is susceptible to the environment in which it is stored, and the quality can deteriorate due to the conditions while being shipped from Japan.

To overcome that, the company has opened two rice milling plants in Hong Kong and Singapore. From there, the company readily expanded sales by offering a delivery service of rice that is freshly milled on the day to customers.

Mitsuo Fujio, president of Japan’s biggest rice wholesaler, Shinmei Co., said he believes "more and more people abroad are seeking authentic Japanese food."

Sushi train restaurant operator Genkizushi, Shinmei’s subsidiary, operates about 170 branches overseas. The company is planning to start switching the rice in its outlets from rice produced in the United States or China to that produced in Japan.

In Japan, rice consumption is decreasing by about 80,000 tons annually.

Since the 1970s, the government implemented reductions of the acreage planted for rice on each prefecture to prevent an oversupply of the grain. From 2018, the caps were lifted, and rice farmers are facing new challenges to produce and market their crops.

One of the main hurdles for the export of Japanese rice is the price tag.

Singapore-based restaurant operator RE & S, which runs about 70 Japanese restaurants in Singapore, only uses Japanese rice at more expensive outlets where one meal is priced at around 25 Singapore dollars (about 2,100 yen, or $19.20), but that is only 20 percent of the overall rice consumption of its business.

Some Japanese businesses are producing Koshihikari and other varieties of Japanese rice overseas.

"Rice (of a Japanese variety) grown in Vietnam costs less than half (of rice grown in Japan), and the quality is improving," said Atsushi Seki, 35, the manager of the purchasing department of the company. "It would be difficult to use only rice from Japan (at our restaurants)."

For many years, Japanese rice farmers have been aiming to produce rice varieties that are "expensive but delicious" under the crop reduction program, and there are not many rice varieties that are "reasonably tasty and cheap."

Kubota has been encouraging Japanese farmers to employ direct sowing techniques, as opposed to the traditional seedling transplanting method, to lower the price of rice, which the company generally pays around 9,000 yen per 60 kilograms to farmers.

To make Japanese rice competitive with California rice or Japanese varieties grown in Vietnam and Thailand, it is aiming to bring down the buying price to under 7,000 yen per 60 kg.

Kitsu Mizuho Seisan Kumiai (Kitsu Mizuho rice farmers association) in Niigata, which began exporting rice in 2005, recently started various cost-cutting measures, such as planting a new variety that produces more grains and sowing directly to paddies.

However, the price of their rice still remains about double what their rival producers in the United States or other nations sell for.

Toshiyuki Tsubotani, 58, the representative of the association, warned, "Exporting is a means of our survival, but it is meaningless if the Japanese rice farming industry collapses after getting into price competition (with overseas producers)."