Rice to Japan

We understand the basics of international trade as well as the next folks: Everybody buys practically everything from everybody else, so he doesn't have to make it himself.

But Japan importing rice? That's as astounding as Americans importing footballs, or elephants importing memories. Most people think Japan invented rice. Besides, it's been 17 years since Japan needed more rice than it grew.

Naturally the rice it's getting is from the United States, that international ricebasket with a surplus - right? No: It's from South Korea, which doesn't grow enough food and has to import more.

Then why doesn't the foreign rice come from California, figuratively ankle-deep in surplus: Price? Quantity? Speed of delivery? No, no, and no - in that order.

The real reason is reminiscent of the old riddle: When is a door not a door - when it's ajar. When is a rice import not an import - when it comes from South Korea.

It's all perfectly clear to the Japanese government, which argues that because the rice it's importing is repayment of rice it lent Korea 15 years ago, then it isn't an import, just a loan repayment. The same amount of rice imported from America would be, well, imported rice.

The government hopes that Japanese rice farmers, upset at the prospect of losing a slice of their market, won't protest the import of non-imported rice. Got that?

Actually it ought to be perfectly clear in a nation that understands the arcane intracacies of contract bridge and fills out you know what form every April 15th.

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