Imports of foreign rice, which were only approved seven years ago, are increasing yearly, finding regular Japanese buyers and gaining in popularity amid an ethnic food boom.

Imported rice takes up an eye-catching position at a supermarket here, reflecting its growing popularity with consumers.

According to government statistics, 430,000 tons of rice were imported in fiscal 1995, and nearly 770,000 tons in fiscal 2000.

Major supermarket chain Daiei Inc. sells the popular Japanese strain Koshihikari, which is produced in California and Australia, at major outlets across the nation. Sales last year of the California variety jumped 20 percent from the year before and the Australian variety 10 percent.

A 5-kg package of such rice sells for 1,780 yen. This is slightly higher than Chinese rice, which is priced at 1,580 yen, but considerably cheaper than domestically grown rice.

A sales campaign annually organized by the Japan office of the USA Rice Federation, a group of rice millers, was joined by six Japanese supermarket and convenience store chains in 1999, with the number increasing to nine last year. Seven companies have already joined the campaign this year.

“U.S. rice is popular and sells out each time,” said an official of Izumiya Co., a Kansai-based supermarket chain.

The Australian Rice Growers Cooperative is also waging an all-out sales campaign.

But both organizations appear to be fighting an uphill battle because of record-low prices of domestically produced rice in Japan following bumper harvests last year.

“We started selling foreign-produced rice only one year ago, but sales are growing steadily each month,” said Toshikazu Nishira, owner of Rice Shop Nishira in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture. Thai jasmine rice, with the flavor of its namesake, is the shop’s most popular brand.

Royal Co., a restaurant chain, said it bought 90 tons of Thai rice at a Thai fair last year and the rice has been popular with its customers.

In ethnic dishes, Pakistani Basmati rice, Italian Ballira rice and Italian Vialone nano rice are proving popular despite costing much more than domestically grown rice, at more than 1,000 yen per kg.

The Food Agency said that, of the imported rice, about 100,000 tons is consumed in dishes and the rest is used in the processing of miso, soy sauce and sake.

In Okinawa, Thai rice is used as an ingredient for the traditional Ryukuan liquor “awamori,” which is becoming increasingly popular. The Food Agency held a bidding for 5,000 tons of Thai rice in early May, about one month earlier than in a typical year.

To limit the volume of imported rice, the government buys such rice and sells it to the private sector in a tender. The most popular in an auction held May 30 was Chinese rice, whose purchase price jumped 3.9-fold to 260,900 yen per ton. The price was fixed high because of import tariffs that were imposed to prevent foreign rice from affecting prices of domestically produced rice.

The state regulates rice output to curb surpluses, but calls for imported and high-quality rice are rising. “We want more imports to enrich the local food culture and eating habits,” a Tokyo ethnic food expert said.

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