U.S. Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter today gave his Japanese counterpart two bags of California rice and expressed optimism that Japan will act this year to end its ban on imports of the grain.
Japan’s refusal to open its rice market is one of the stickiest trade disputes between the two economic superpowers, and Yeutter received no promises today.
Yeutter presented Tomio Yamamoto, the agriculture minister, with four pounds of medium-grain California rice at the beginning of their talks. Yamamoto accepted the rice with a smile and a word of thanks.
Yeutter later told a news conference that Japan could provide a great boost to multilateral negotiations to liberalize international trade by acting quickly to open its rice market to imports.
The four-year negotiations, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, end in December. U.S. officials believe that exemptions requested by individual nations for certain products such as rice reduce the chances for overall success.
“I am cautiously optimistic that reason and good judgment will prevail in Japan and that this nation will do its part” in the trade talks, Yeutter said at the news conference.
Although Japan is the world’s largest food importer, the government has insisted on maintaining self-sufficiency in rice, its staple food, which sells for several times the world market price. Only a limited quantity of imported rice is allowed for use in processed food.
Yamamoto told Yeutter that rice “is more than an issue of concern to Japan. It is a matter of life and death to us,” Kyodo News Service reported.
Yeutter stressed that he envisioned Japan opening its rice market only gradually. He said U.S. policy is to support the conversion of all import restrictions to tariffs, which would then be lowered over time.