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`Samurai' Sato takes on Tokyo's rice restrictions. Japanese want to buy banned US rice

Taiji Sato has come to fight. He has brought the formal kimono of a samurai: a quiver, a sword, and a fortress are painted on the back. White sandals for his feet. A black and blue striped vest to go over the kimono.

His enemy: the bureaucracy in Tokyo that refuses to allow United States rice to be imported in Japan.

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In a surprising twist to the US-Japanese trade wars, a Ralph Nader in a kimono has suddenly arrived to tell the press and official Washington that the Japanese want to buy US rice that is banned in Japan. ``The ban has infuriated me for some time,'' he says through a translator. ``The Japanese consumers are tired of paying 10 times the world price for rice.''

This is definitely not the message US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter received earlier this year when US rice growers tried to get Japan to open their markets.

At that time, Ambassador Yeutter decided to let the issue come up during the multiyear General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations. As Yeutter found out, it is a politically sensitive issue in Japan, where rice is considered by some to have near-spiritual significance.

This may be true for some older Japanese, says Mr. Sato, but not for the younger generation that is increasingly eating Western foods.

He comes armed with a new poll taken by the Japanese Housewives Association. More than half those polled think rice is too expensive and 90 percent want liberalization of the rice rules. ``Those who argue against it are government bureaucrats, farmers, and those who benefit from restrictions,'' he says.

On December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Sato plans to arrive at Tokyo's Narita Airport armed with what he calls a ``rice bomb'' of 1 tons of California rice.

``Does he have an import license?'' asks Koichi Haraguchi of the Japanese Embassy.

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``Of course not,'' replies Sato. ``If I asked for an import license, they would ignore me. No, I will confront the customs officers.'' Sato hopes the confrontation will take place on prime-time TV in Tokyo. At the very least, he will bring in 220 pounds for himself allowed by Japanese law. ``We will have rice-tasting parties,'' he promises. ``The rice is very good.''

This enthusiastic support, notes Stephen Gabbert of the US Rice Millers Association, has not been solicited. ``He's a walk-on, so to speak,'' says Mr. Gabbert. ``I've never seen anything like it.''

Gabbert may not have seen anything like it, but the Japanese have. His interpreter, Yoshi Tsurumi, a professor of international business at Baruch College in New York, calls Sato a ``hangyakusha,'' or rebel. Sato has challenged official Tokyo in the name of consumerism and to the benefit of his own pocket before.

When Sato was 22 years old, he bought a bankrupt gasoline station in a Tokyo backwater. He purchased surplus gasoline from the refiners who made more fuel than they could sell. Then, he broke with tradition. He discounted the price and advertised it on large signs outside his station. Lines formed overnight.

Five hundred gasoline stations later, Sato was noticed by much larger competitors. He stood out when he started importing gasoline from Singapore; gasoline had never been imported. ``There was no law against it,'' he says. ``It was just understood that it would not be done.''

Last February, the government formally legalized the importation of refined oil. It was called the ``Petroleum Free Import Act,'' and only oil refiners could import gasoline. Sato has since found a loophole that allows him to import gasoline from Korea.

Next he wants to bring in processed Western food, such as beef jerky. ``When we sell it at the stations,'' he explains, ``we cannot keep it on the shelves.'' Beef is another product official Tokyo considers politically sensitive.

He wants to sell the rice at his gasoline chain, Lions Petroleum Co. ``Call it diversification,'' he says.

Sato, who was amateur bantamweight boxing champion of Tokyo, likes a good fight. He is convinced a steady diet of media events will mobilize the Japanese consumer and pressure the government. He vows he is not arriving in Washington dressed as a samurai just to get on the nightly news. Instead, he says, ``I promise in the near future rice will be liberated.''

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