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Sell Rice to Japan? No Way, Governor Told

January 21, 1987|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

TOKYO — Gov. George Deukmejian was bluntly advised by Japan's agriculture minister on Tuesday to stop wasting his time trying to sell California rice to the Japanese.

Rice is Japan's main crop and basic food substance. Beyond that, experts agree, the Japanese have an emotional tie to their own rice.

Remembering wartime starvation and striving these days to become self-sufficient in food--at last count, they were growing 71% of what they eat--the Japanese have banned all imports of rice.

"If you had the government and maybe the U.S. Marine Corps you might make a little dent" in the Japanese rice market, a senior American embassy official told reporters.

Richard King, a veteran Pacific Rim trade consultant from Los Angeles, and an unofficial member of the California delegation of government and business leaders now visiting Japan, observed that "negotiating for rice is like negotiating for Mt. Fuji," the national symbol.

Nevertheless, Deukmejian has targeted rice for special promotion on his weeklong trip to pry open more Japanese markets for California products and to increase Japan's investments in the state. Almost every public address or private meeting has contained a strong pitch for California rice.

In interviews with Tokyo reporters Tuesday, Deukmejian asserted--as he has on many previous occasions--that the Japanese pay 10 times more for locally grown rice than they would for California rice. And he said that if only 5% of Japan's rice consumption were imported from California, it would take care of the state's rice surplus.

But clearly, Deukmejian's tenacious arguments on the rice issue are falling on deaf ears here, producing the first apparent sign of failure in an otherwise outwardly successful trip.

Japan's agriculture minister, Mutsuki Kato, obviously felt he already had heard enough of Deukmejian's rice message by the time the governor arrived in his office for a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

"The minister said, 'We don't have a lot of time, so don't waste it on rice,' " recalled California Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill.

Kato was quoted in today's Japan Times as having told Deukmejian, "We will try our best to increase imports of agricultural produce--other than rice."

During the 40-minute meeting, according to Berryhill, the governor and his advisers also urged the Japanese to lift the ban on nectarine imports, to increase quotas for beef and citrus and to reduce tariffs on wine and pistachios.

The state official said California "is getting close" on nectarines, and slow progress is being made on other California crops, including walnuts and cherries. California almonds already are a big seller here.

The turndown to Deukmejian on rice also was delivered Tuesday by another Japanese official, former agriculture minister Tsutomu Hata, now an influential member of Parliament. He firmly told the governor, during a session also attended by other Parliament leaders, that "we understand what your arguments are (for importing California rice), but it's not going to happen."

So why is Deukmejian, in seeming futility, pushing for rice?

His chief of staff, Steven Merksamer, reported that other officials within the Japanese government have urged him to. Merksamer would not elaborate.

Berryhill candidly said that California rice growers had asked the governor to pitch for their crop. (A check in Sacramento of 1986 political campaign contributions uncovered no donations to Deukmejian from rice-grower groups during his successful reelection bid.)

Berryhill, a lifelong farmer himself and a veteran negotiator with the Japanese, said, "You have to keep the pressure on. You can't just sit back and say 'Thanks a lot for all you've done.' Nothing's going to happen then."

At the same time, he added, "we're not pounding the table and saying if you don't lift it (the import ban), we'll go home all ticked off. . . .

"Actually, I'm a little more optimistic than most people. I think within the governor's lifetime we'll see some progress."

Deukmejian is 58 and, from all outward appearances, in very good health.

California rice farmers, located primarily in the Sacramento Valley, produce a crop about one-eighth the size that Japan annually produces. The politically influential Japanese farmers are heavily subsidized by the government.

Despite trade problems with rice and other problems, Japanese officials are quick to point out that Japan is the biggest customer for California agriculture exports.

Today, Deukmejian enjoyed a change of pace from his formal meetings with politicians and visited an English class in a Tokyo metropolitan high school. The governor sat in a chair, his feet in sandals, and watched 45 slightly nervous, uniformed, well-behaved students answer questions in English about the story, "Johnny Appleseed and Aunt Mattie."

Afterward--taking up their recess time--Deukmejian told the class: "As someone in government, I'm like Aunt Mattie in your story. I'm very good at telling stories." After a moment of silence, he added: "They didn't get the joke." Then there was laughter.

The governor invited questions from the class, but there were none, perhaps because the students were shy about trying to converse with him in his language. So he asked some students a few questions--What do you want to do after college? "I'm not sure." Who wants to go to California? Many hands. "You're all invited."

On the way out, the governor paused to chat with Yukari Harada, 16, who lived in Palos Verdes for 3 years while her father worked for Mitsubishi in Los Angeles. She returned two years ago and told the governor:"California was very wonderful. The people were very nice. I'd like to go back if there is a chance."

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