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February 06, 2003

Study puts Japanese perceptions
of California rice to the test

Photo:  Professor Ken ChinenJapanese consumers know rice. And nearly 80 percent of them "know" that California grown rice is inferior to domestically produced rice, and maintain they can tell the difference.

The perception plays a significant part in justifying Japanese trade restrictions on imported rice. But can they really tell the difference?

"The answer is, 'no,'" said Ken Chinen, professor of international business at California State University, Sacramento. "In blind tests they cannot tell the difference even though they say they can."

Chinen, a native of Japan, put Japanese tastes and beliefs to the test in a series of experiments conducted in Sunnyvale and Sacramento. He asked 161 Japanese nationals to taste two portions of short-grained white rice-the kind preferred in Japanese cooking-and rate the samples according to sweetness, stickiness, texture, fragrance and whiteness. Participants were also asked a series a questions about their attitudes toward domestic and imported rice and, finally, to identify the samples as being Japanese- or California-grown. His findings will be presented at the Global Business Education Symposium on Feb. 11 at CSUS.

When the results were compiled they showed that Japanese consumers could not clearly tell the difference. Of the 80 percent who expressed a preference for rice grown in Japan, 40 percent misidentified the rice grown in Japan. Participants did even worse if they made their choices by smell alone: 50 percent incorrectly identified the Japanese-grown rice by its fragrance.

"Statistically speaking, there is no significant difference," Chinen said. "It's just an issue of perception. Rice is rice."

Chinen said the real issues behind official Japanese distaste for foreign rice is economic and cultural, with a dash of national security.

"In Japan, rice is the source of culture, religion, wealth, power and aesthetics," Chinen said. "Rice is not just food, rice is more than that."

Domestic rice production is also tied to national security through fears that Japan-which relies on food imports to feed its burgeoning population-could be held hostage by foreign rice growers if it became dependent on imported rice. While that might be acceptable for other food products, to allow it to happen to rice would be perceived as a crisis.

"They worry that, some time in the future, other countries might use rice as a weapon," Chinen said. Indeed, 65 percent of the Japanese surveyed by Chinen said they were concerned about the island nation's future food supply. In addition to worries about "food security," the Japanese are also concerned about the safety of foreign-grown rice. They fear that foreign rice may be contaminated with pesticide residues or harmful preservatives. According to a survey conducted by the Japanese Food Agency, 80 percent of Japanese consumers who prefer domestic rice are concerned about food safety. In Chinen's study, approximately 50 percent of those who preferred Japanese rice expressed their concern about the safety of foreign rice.

Under international trade agreements, Japan does import rice-660,000 tons in 1999-but often re-exports it as food aid to impoverished nations. The United States supplies 51 percent of Japan's imported rice, with approximately 75 percent of that coming from California growers; Thailand (19 percent), Australia (15 percent) and China (10 percent) are other major importers. Imported rice for the Japanese consumer is sold on the market at nearly four times the government's cost.

Referring to a 20-pound bag of koshihikari rice, a preferred type of short-grained rice, Chinen noted that a California buyer could purchase it for under $14; the Japanese buyer would pay about $40 for a bag of the same rice grown in Japan.

"Middle-income Japanese consumers are starting to ask why they have to pay so much more for domestic products when similar foreign products are cheaper," Chinen said. Part of the answer is in the protectionist policies pursued by the Japanese government at the urging of domestic rice growers-very similar to the political influence American agribusinesses have on U.S. policy.

"It is in the politicians' interest and in the farmers' interest to protect the price of rice," Chinen said, "but that might not be best for everyone. I'm on the side of the consumer."

Chinen said he hopes his study will open the door to a greater acceptance of California rice-which is already considered the best of the imported rice-by Japanese consumers, and eventually helping open the market.

The Global Business Education Symposium is free and open to the public. Full information about it, including a schedule of events, descriptions of each workshop and registration, is available online at www.csus.edu/mgmt/gbes. Registration is required but attendees may register the day of the event. For more information and registration, contact Chinen at (916) 278-6882 or at chinenk@csus.edu. Media assistance is available by calling the CSUS public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.

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