puts Japanese perceptions
of California rice to the test
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Media assistance is available by calling the CSUS public affairs
office at (916) 278-6156.