How a little imagination gave little boosts to US-Japan trade. Winning a bureaucratic battle to import more mandarin oranges for the holidays
Seattle — If Takauki Kimura had been able to get a job 41 years ago, New Yorkers might not be about to get their first taste of fresh mandarin oranges imported from Japan. Mr. Kimura began importing the tiny oranges into the Pacific Northwest two decades ago, and they've become as much a holiday tradition in the region as Christmas wreaths and eggnog. Residents of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and Hawaii eat the sweet, juicy oranges by the millions between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year.
This fall, partly at Kimura's urging, the US Department of Agriculture lifted a longstanding restriction that kept the oranges from going any farther, and will now permit them to be distributed in all but a dozen states. Kimura plans to begin marketing the oranges in the Northeast later this year.
Kimura's Great Empire Trading Company is also known for the crisp, apple-shaped Japanese pears it introduced to the United States three years ago. Kimura finds his success especially gratifying, given the circumstances under which the company was launched.
Kimura, his parents, two brothers, and three sisters spent much of World War II in a Japanese-American internment camp near Twin Falls, Idaho. After their release in 1946, one brother went into the military and another went to college - and Kimura was left with the responsibility of staying at home to support his parents and sisters.
``I tried desperately to get a job,'' he recalled, ``but nobody would hire me. They had all kinds of wanted signs out, but when they took a look at me they said they didn't have anything.''
After months of job searching, Mr. Kimura decided to go into business for himself and bought a small grocery store in Seattle.
``Being we were Japanese,'' Kimura said, ``customers would ask us why we didn't get those Japanese oranges that they had to smuggle across the border from Canada.''
The easy-to-peel, seedless oranges had been available in the Western United States from the late 19th century until the start of World War II - but when the war ended, the oranges were still banned from US shores. So with the help of his two brothers, Minoru and Eiji, Kimura began a 17-year-long battle to import the mandarin oranges into the US.
``My oldest brother almost single-handedly took on the US government and the citrus industry,'' he said. ``We had a dream that this was right.''
The family was opposed by domestic orange growers, who feared the imports would hurt sales and might bring a return of the ``citrus canker'' that decimated Florida's orange groves early this century.
In 1968, however, the Department of Agriculture finally approved Kimura's request - provided distribution of the oranges was limited to five Northwest states and Hawaii. Possession in other areas was declared illegal.
The victory for Kimura was bittersweet. ``The unfortunate thing is, my two older brothers, who had literally dedicated their lives to see this project become a reality, both suddenly passed away. They never got to see the first oranges come in,'' he said.
As a result, Kimura has worked especially hard to make sure the business succeeds. ``It's become kind of a labor of love to me more than anything else.''
Kimura buys the mandarin oranges from family farms in Japan, which must adhere to strict regulations to protect the US citrus industry. Each orchard is periodically visited by USDA inspectors to make sure it is free from citrus canker. The oranges are inspected again when they come through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.
The safeguards are a key reason that the USDA is allowing wider distribution of the oranges.
``Our biological data indicate there's not an unacceptable risk,'' said William Helms, deputy administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Washington.
Nevertheless, the agency felt it prudent to keep the oranges out of citrus-producing states and a surrounding ``buffer zone.'' The oranges will not be permitted in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, or California.
The limitations are fine with Kimura, especially since his expansion plans had the support of domestic citrus growers.
``It was pretty much endorsed by everyone. They understood we weren't trying to threaten the industry,'' he said.
Kimura will import 350,000 boxes of the oranges this fall. The eight-pound boxes have traditionally sold for about $8 in the Pacific Northwest, but Easterners can expect to pay up to $12 to cover the shipping expense.
Kimura believes the oranges may become just as much a Christmas tradition in New York and Chicago as they are in Seattle. He feels many people love them not just for their taste, but because they serve as heralds of the holidays.