Japan annually purchases 300,000 metric tons of rice from California growers, but the nation's rice farmers believe it's now time for the U.S. to start buying their product.
Of the eight million tons of rice annually harvested in Japan, a very small fraction is exported: In 2010, only 60 tons of Japanese rice was shipped to the U.S. The two-year old Japanese Rice and Rice Products Export Promotion Association, which this weekend sponsored an onigiri contest and cultural celebration in Seattle, is looking to nearly double that figure over the coming year.
According to association board member Mitsuzo Fujio, "there is demand, but no distribution. The first step is to put rice in Asian markets."
Fujio says many Japanese rice farmers habitually sell their surplus crop for animal feed. But industry leaders believe there's greater profit potential in positioning Japanese rice as a needed ingredient for authentic Japanese dishes, much as Italian-grown arborio rice is considered essential for risotto by some cooks.
"We have all this beautiful rice, why not sell it overseas?," said Sonoko Sakai, a writer and cook who's helped produce the association's promotional events in Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. "If you really love to try delicious rice, Japanese rice is the way to go, because it's a different soil, different climate; it's a different experience."
Alice Kobori - co-owner of the Six Coins food truck with her husband, Moto -- used imported koshihikari rice for the sushi rolls and curry bowls they sold on Sunday. The Koboris typically use Californian rice. While she didn't notice any differences during the cooking process, she admitted she hadn't yet tasted the Japanese-grown rice.
Sakai describes the rice as "fluffy, plumpy and juicy."
Plans to invigorate the export market were initially waylaid by the Fukushima earthquake and related nuclear disaster. "Production went down and the American consumer became a little worried," Fujio explains. "But we're starting to get our audience back."
Japanese growers will first court expats who are nostalgic for rices which are hard to find in the U.S. "I was just going down the aisle at Uwajimaya, and they have mostly medium-grain California rice," Sakai says. But they hope to eventually cultivate a new audience for Japanese rice.
"It has its own distinct charms we'd like people to try," Fujio says.