`Sushi Boy' Aims To Slice Through Japan's Rice Ban

UNITED States officials are quietly gloating over an attempt by a Japanese merchant to break down his government's Berlin Wall-like ban against the import of foreign rice.

The merchant, Fujio Matsumoto, who owns an Osaka-based chain of 44 restaurants called Sushi Boy, has revived a key US-Japan dispute with a plan to import sushi and rice balls containing 100 percent Californian rice starting in November. Such rice costs about six times less than Japanese rice.

Japanese Food Agency officials have tried to block the import pending their ruling on whether these kinds of specialty rice products would fit into a legal loophole that allows such processed items as rice flour and Rice Krispies to enter the country.

While the foreign rice in the imported sushi would be cooked and molded to fit under slices of raw fish, it might look too similar to regularly consumed rice for officials, and thus not be allowed. A Food Agency official says the imported sushi itself may not meet all guidelines on the proportion of processed rice to fish.

But, says a Sushi Boy official, Masahiro Namba, "Our product would be strictly made up of 23 grams of rice while the fish on top, such as tuna, would be 10 grams. That fits the agency rule that the non-rice portion exceed 20 percent."

The incident comes at a vulnerable time for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which relies heavily on rural farmers for votes in return for protecting them from cheap foreign rice. Talks on the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), aimed at expanding world trade, are expected to pick up speed next month, which would revive pressure on Japan to open its rice market. The US has long cited Japan's rice ban as a major impediment to success of the Uruguay Round.

The import plan by an urban restaurant delights US officials in Tokyo who have long sought to have Japanese leaders respond more to the interests of city dwellers than to rural farmers on many issues, and to allow cheaper foreign imports to enter the country.

The US has asked the Food Agency to allow the import, which would come from Sushi Boy's factory in Escondido, Calif.

A similar confrontation took place in 1990 when officials of the US Rice Millers Association tried to display a few pounds of American rice at a food fair in Tokyo and were threatened with arrest for violating Japan's Food Control Law.

Earlier this month, an urgent plea was made to Japan to drop its rice ban by Arthur Dunkel, secretary-general of GATT, the world body that sets trade rules.

He asked that Japan adopt his proposal for all nations to impose tariffs rather than either bans or quotas on imported food. But Mr. Dunkel was rebuffed by LDP officials, who cited an important election coming up next year.

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