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Mie ‘mikan’ growers use rare varieties to fend off foreign imports

Chunichi Shimbun

Rare mikan (mandarin oranges or tangerines) that were on the brink of extinction are once again showing up in markets in the Higashi Kishu region in Mie Prefecture, a major citrus growing area.

Mikan growers and sellers are attracted to native mikan brands as a way to differentiate themselves amid an increasing threat of further liberalization of the orange market, as Japan and the United States may start negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement.

Japanese farmers fear the agreement could result in an influx of oranges from the United States that are more cost-competitive.

“The number of mikan that a person can eat in a day is limited. If more oranges are imported from the United States, consumption of Japan-grown mikan will drop,” said an official of an agricultural cooperative in Mihama, Mie Prefecture, which touts itself as “a town that produces mikan all year long.”

Japan has been conducting selective breeding of citrus fruits to make them seedless and sweet.

However, such new breeds of mikan and oranges often face fierce price competition with similar varieties of imported fruit.

After Japan’s orange market was liberalized as a result of trade talks with the U.S. in 1988, imported oranges were sold at half the price of domestic citrus fruit, forcing many Japanese growers to give up farming or change to different crops.

Then came the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, in which Japan agreed to eliminate tariffs imposed on citrus fruit, ranging between 16 and 32 percent depending on the season, over six to eight years, while allowing itself to impose high tariffs in the winter season — when consumption is high — if imports abruptly increase.

However, the U.S. recently announced that it will quit the TPP framework and negotiate a bilateral trade pact with Japan, which may bring even tougher demands.

Faced with the danger of a further decline in mikan farmers, the citrus industry in the Higashi Kishu region is focusing on producing unique citrus varieties to differentiate their products from imports.

Shizen Juku, a fruit shop based in Kumano, Mie, began selling bottles of mikan juice in March produced using Yatsushiro, a mikan variety the size of a pingpong ball that was grown largely on the Kii Peninsula during the Meiji Era.

The firm hopes the juice, sold at ¥540 per 150-ml bottle, will be used as a seasoning for cooking.

Local people have traditionally mixed Yatsushiro juice with soy sauce to go with white fish sashimi, instead of using wasabi.

The region is working on promoting Yatsushiro by taking part in local specialty exhibitions at department stores in Tokyo and Nagoya.

Because Yatsushiro has many seeds and is extremely sour, it was deemed useless after the end of World War II and most of the trees were felled. But Shizen Juku purchases the few that are still grown at ¥300 per kilogram, almost double the price for the widely marketed Unshu mikan tangerines.

“To protect the traditional mikan varieties, we have to call on farmers to continue producing those fruit,” stresses Shizen Juku President Ken Takeuchi, 65.

Meanwhile, Mihama Kankitsu, a producer and seller of oranges in Mihama, is expanding production of Ichigi oranges, a variety that has been cultivated in the town in small quantities for more than 60 years.

Ichigi oranges are sweet and juicy, and can be scooped out with a spoon like grapefruit.

The fruit has been gaining popularity, and shipments are expected to grow to 5 tons next year, a tenfold increase from a decade ago.

The firm is boosting online sales of the fruit, together with other Higashi Kishu-grown citrus breeds, Shunkokan and Sanpokan, touting them as the “rare orange trio.”

“Fruit types that have once become extinct can be taken as new products by young people or people living outside the region who have never tried them before,” said Mihama Kankitsu President Hirohisa Shiba, 67.

“Having excellent varieties is a great weapon to fight imported produce,” Shiba said.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 19.