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MASUDA, Shimane Pref. (Kyodo) Images of a castle, cherry blossoms and traditional “egret dance” performers adorn a package made of Japanese paper, along with a label that reads “yummy and healthy rice” grown in Shimane Prefecture.

The rice, milled and packaged at the JA Nishi Iwami agricultural cooperative, has found its way into two upscale department stores in Taiwan, where high-quality food items are popular gifts.

“We are trying to emphasize the high-class image of our rice, so we made the elaborate package,” said Tsuyoshi Mitarai, director general of JA Nishi Iwami’s agricultural department.

Locally certified farmers grow the “healthy rice” using reduced amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

The egret dance shown on the packaging is a famous folk dance performed every summer in the Shimane area.

Since Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in January 2002, foreign rice growers have seen market access opportunities expand.

Akihiro Higashino, an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry official who once worked at the Interchange Association in Taipei, Japan’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, said he urged JA and Shimane prefectural officials to export rice to Taiwan because Niigata rice proved popular there.

JA Nishi Iwami has shipped 10 to 15 tons of rice annually to Taiwan since October 2003, where it sells at the Breeze Center in Taipei and Isetan department store in Kaohsiung.

“When we conducted our first sales campaigns, 500 packages of rice, or 1 ton, sold out in less than three days,” Mitarai said. “Then sales staff at the Taipei store got serious.”

The department store sold Shimane rice in special gift packages during Chinese New Year in February.

Despite a price tag equivalent to 1,500 yen to 1,600 yen per package — six times the price of the cheapest rice, wealthy Taiwanese customers seemed happy to shell out for the Shimane strain.

“We will never cut the price because we want to maintain the rice’s brand value,” Mitarai said.

“We explain how safe our rice is, but consumers seem to buy the product because of its good taste,” he said, adding that 30 percent of all the rice sold at Breeze Center comes from Shimane.

“With the product becoming popular in Taiwan, rice farmers in Shimane have become more confident in themselves and have expanded their production,” Mitarai said.

He added that the main objective of the export drive is to heighten the rice’s brand power and boost sales in Japan, because little rice is actually exported and the project is not expected to generate much profit.

JA Nishi Iwami plans to start selling rice in Taichung and boost exports of other produce to Taiwan as well, including pickled wasabi and fruit, he said.

The story of Shimane’s successful farmers is encouraging other producers in Japan looking for an overseas niche under a government initiative to double Japan’s food exports to about 600 billion yen in 2009 from 331.1 billion yen in 2005.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is spearheading the “aggressive agriculture” export drive, which is aimed at enhancing the farm sector’s competitiveness. The government has for years protected Japanese farmers from overseas competition. Now it is trying to turn the tables by turning them into exporters in their own right.

The government began promoting food exports in earnest in April 2004, with the budget for the promotional campaign increased from about 50 million yen per year through fiscal 2003, to 1.2 billion yen in fiscal 2006. The push seems to be having results: Farm exports in 2005 rose by 12.1 percent compared with the previous year.

The Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives (JA-Zenchu), the umbrella organization of the local JA branches, has exported rice grown by its members nationwide under the JA Rice brand since October 2004.

Last year about 120 tons of JA rice, including produce from Niigata, Yamagata and Akita prefectures, known for their high-quality strains, was exported to Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong.

“Even though long-grain rice is consumed in those markets, except for Taiwan, some people try samples of short-grain Japanese rice and buy the Japanese product on impulse,” said Jun Yaguchi, a JA-Zenchu official.

The JA products, including rice that needs no washing before being cooked, are aimed at wealthy people and sold at high-end department stores.

In Thailand, for instance, JA rice is 10 times more expensive than the cheapest local product, Yaguchi said.

Cashing in on the popularity of Japanese cuisine overseas, the organization has hosted cooking classes in Singapore to teach how to make sushi using Japanese rice, he added.

JA-Zenchu hopes to eventually sell its rice in the huge Chinese market, but Beijing has yet to allow imports from Japan, saying quarantine problems remain, Yaguchi said.

The export campaign has given a ray of hope to rice farmers who are grappling with an aging workforce, declining domestic consumption and a possible surge in imports, depending on the outcome of current global trade negotiations.

But critics say the export drive is not a panacea, noting the price of Japanese rice has fallen in some overseas markets due to competition between products from different parts of Japan.

Arguing that Japan’s food exports are insignificant compared with its imports, the value of which stood at about 7 trillion yen in 2004, a former agricultural ministry official said Japan should focus on measures to dramatically improve efficiency so farmers can better compete with imports.

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