Fukushima eyes U.S.-bound local rice exports of 100 tons a year

By Naoyuki Saito, chief reporter on prefectural politics, News Department, Fukushima-Minpo Co. LOS ANGELES -- The Fukushima prefectural government agreed with a group of local farmers and a Japanese mass retailer on Jan. 16 (Jan. 17 JST) to aim for the export of 100 tons of rice per year to the United States in the wake of Washington's removal of import restrictions on Japanese food imposed after the 2011 nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant. The prefectural government signed the agreement with JA Zen-Noh Fukushima, a local chapter of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (Zen-Noh) of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA) group, and Pan Pacific International Holdings Corp. The retailer, known as PPIH, plans to open 13 stores in the U.S. market in the near future to expand its sales network and restaurant business, which are expected to help meet the export target for the Fukushima-grown premier rice brand "Ten-no-tsubu" (heavenly grain). The three parties met behind closed doors at a Los Angeles hotel before the agreement was announced at a press conference by Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori, PPIH Director and Senior Managing Executive Officer Kazuhiro Matsumoto, and Keiji Kanno, head of JA Fukushima Goren, a group of five JA outposts in Fukushima Prefecture. Under the accord calling for the annual export target of 100 tons, the prefectural government will work to expand markets for local rice by beefing up sales campaigns, while PPIH will cooperate with the prefectural government in sales promotion and market development. JA Zen-Noh Fukushima, for its part, will try to ensure stable rice supply in partnership with the local government. PPIH operates the Don Quijote discount store chain in Japan, while running about 100 outlets abroad, including Marukai and Tokyo Central supermarkets. It handles 540 tons of Japanese rice a year in the U.S. states of California and Hawaii. "Overseas consumption of Japanese rice will grow further," Matsumoto said, noting that his company would like to regard the export target of 100 tons of Fukushima rice per year to the United States "not as part of our annual total of 540 tons sold there but as an addition." He emphasized that PPIH is seeking to achieve a net increase in the volume of Japanese rice sold abroad, including Fukushima rice. He also indicated the intention to use Ten-no-tsubu for home-meal replacement including sushi and box lunches. It was the first top-level agreement involving Uchibori on a rice export deal in the range of 100 tons since the governor landed a similar deal with Malaysia in 2017. Fukushima exported 398 tons of local rice harvested in fiscal 2021, including 104 tons to Malaysia, 165 tons to Singapore and 113 tons to Hong Kong. Full-scale shipments to the United States would broaden overseas markets for Fukushima rice. Asked at the news conference about the significance of exporting rice to the United States, which had restricted food imports from Japan until September 2021, Uchibori said it "will be one of the symbols of Fukushima's reconstruction" from the disaster. Fukushima to have sake sales base in L.A., deal struck with local wine shop The prefectural government will set up a West Coast base for Fukushima's promotion in the United States, the largest export market for Fukushima-brewed sake rice wine, in anticipation of higher sales in the region. During his U.S. visit, Uchibori negotiated with Brentwood Fine Wines, a popular high-end liquor shop in the Los Angeles area, and agreed on an in-store corner for sake brands from Fukushima. The shop will install a large refrigerator dedicated to Fukushima sake brands in April at the earliest. Tasting sessions will be held in the shop regularly as part of sales promotion. The prefecture hopes to boost the awareness and branding power of local sake on the West Coast, counting on Fukushima's impressive track record in an annual national sake contest, and cultivate new consumer demand there. In the Annual Japan Sake Awards last year, Fukushima secured the largest number of "gold" top awards for the ninth straight time, among products newly brewed in the 2021-2022 season from the country's 47 prefectures. The large community of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles is among the major potential targets for sales of Fukushima sake. Those involved also hope that wealthy residents in upscale suburban areas like Beverly Hills will become customers, too. Shop manager Juan Centeno said many wine lovers show an understanding of sake's allure. When Uchibori sounded him out about the possibility of his shop stocking a sake brand brewed from yeast that traveled in space on a rocket, he said he had not tasted the "space sake" that was developed in commemoration of the post-disaster restoration of the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan but promised to put it on the shelf. The United States accounts for roughly half of Fukushima-brewed sake exports in volume terms. Fukushima sake brands were given exclusive corners in U.S. wine shops for the first time after Uchibori visited New York in 2018. Since his promotional efforts on the East Coast, more than 30 shops have come to sell Fukushima sake in the U.S. market amid growing demand for the Japanese liquor. Sake exports from Fukushima to the United States totaled 145,568 liters and were worth 190.4 million yen in fiscal 2021 through March 2022, nearly double the level before such sake corners were first created. (Translated by Kyodo News)