The growing popularity of noni juice among health enthusiasts in Japan is shaping up to be a business lifeline for the fragile economies of South Pacific island-nations.

A number of Japanese firms are planning talks with South Pacific business representatives who will visit Tokyo later this week for a products fair. The Pacific Islands Exhibition will be held Friday through Tuesday in conjunction with a forum of Japanese and South Pacific leaders in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

The fruit of the noni, or Indian mulberry, is native to South Pacific islands. Juice made from it through fermentation first became popular in the United States before arriving in Japan about five years ago, according to Akira Ouchi, director of the Pacific Islands Center, a Tokyo-based global organization helping to organize the event.

The fruit was first marketed in Tahiti, and growing demand is forcing businesses to seek new supply sources, he said.

Noni juice is an acquired taste, usually drunk straight only by health nuts, so it is often mixed with other fruit juices, Ouchi said. Its compounds are said to be good for the body, including the immune system.

In another sign of growing noni interest in Japan, the number of importers of the product has risen to more than 35 since it hit these shores, and businesses such as organic-food shops are entering the market, Ouchi added.

Mixed noni juice was also featured in the annual Mother’s Day sales event at Isetan Co.’s flagship store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It was the first time the retailer focused on health food and drinks at the event.

“We combined the general health-oriented trend in food consumption and Mother’s Day so customers can express their gratitude to mothers by giving them something healthy,” said Shunsuke Kimura, assistant grocery sales manager at the store.

Noni juice is also making headway at Mother’s organic-oriented grocery stores, which began selling organic noni juice this year in response to customer requests.

On the Internet front, the number of noni products sold via Healthy-Net Corp.’s Web site kenko.com has risen to 14 from two when such goods first debuted three years ago.

Japan’s health-food market was estimated to be worth 614.6 billion yen in fiscal 2002, up from 585.4 billion yen the previous year and from 440.5 billion yen five years ago, according to the Yano Research Institute.

But sales of noni products via Healthy-Net are not competitive with its other goods, said Yumiko Nakada, the company’s marketing and public-relations manager.

“We never saw it appear on our list of top-100 sellers of some 11,000 items,” said Nakada. “But with the number of ads around, its visibility is certainly on the rise.”

Yet the slow growth is good enough for the islanders to seek out business opportunities, said Ouchi of PIC, set up in 1996 by Japan and the Pacific Islands Forum.

“We are targeting only a niche market of people interested in unique, foreign things, as supplies are limited,” he said.

The small island states have populations ranging from 2,100 in Niue and 10,400 in Tuvalu to around 5 million in Papua New Guinea.

The strategy comes from a lesson learned when Tuvalu failed to meet output targets under its contract with Air Pacific for hand-crafted shell accessories the airline gives to passengers, he said.

Albeit small by Japanese standards, the business means a lot for the islands’ fragile economies, which are mostly dependent on primary products.

The products fair will be cohosted with the Japan External Trade Organization and the Pacific Islands Forum, which is based in Fiji. Afterward, the 30-odd business and tourism officials from about 10 island states will visit Okinawa for exchanges with local businesspeople, Ouchi said.

Also to be featured in the exhibition are tropical shellfish, coconut toiletries, coffee beans and handicrafts.

The Pacific Island Leaders Meeting in Nago will take place Friday and Saturday.

The summit, which will be cohosted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum, is the third of its kind. Previous meetings were in Tokyo in October 1997 and Miyazaki Prefecture in April 2000.

Apart from trade and investment promotion, the leaders will also discuss action plans in the areas of security, the environment, human resources and public health.

The Pacific Islands Forum consists of Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.