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Kaifu Seems Set To Try To Ease Japan's Rice Import Ban

SUSHI chefs want it. Many Japanese homemakers want it. Big business is demanding it. Now Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu appears to want it. Mr. Kaifu gave vague support to a long-sought opening of Japan's market to inexpensive foreign rice during his summit with President Bush last week.

"Let us try together to resolve the issue of rice, along with other issues" that are preventing success of the world trade talks known as the Uruguay Round, Kaifu said. In the past, Japan has refused even to discuss rice import liberalization, insisting instead on a need for "food security" in its basic staple.

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Mr. Bush was less vague at a post-summit news conference. "We would like to have full access to this market," he said.

Kaifu returned to Tokyo from the April 4 summit in California as his government was taking initial steps to partially drop its protection of about 2 million commercial rice farmers in Japan.

An advisory panel to the prime minister, led by prominent businessman Eiji Suzuki, revealed its intention to recommend an opening of the rice market. Agriculture Minister Motoji Kondo ordered a review of the basic farm law. And a few leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) hinted or stated that Japan must soon concede on the issue.

But the LDP, fearing a loss of support from rural voters, will likely wait to act until after a set of local elections ends on April 21, according to statements made by LDP executive council chairman Takeo Nishioka. The first elections, including that for governor of Tokyo, was held April 7.

More than just another trade issue, the ban on rice imports (except for 50,000 tons a year for specialty products) has helped to provide a strong rural base to keep the LDP in power, contributed to high urban land prices that benefit Japanese export industries, and become a symbol of Japan's low profile at the Uruguay Round, many analysts say. The round is aimed at freeing up many trade areas not yet covered under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Japan opposed a "minimum access" proposal at the Uruguay Round talks last December that would oblige each nation to import 3 percent to 5 percent of its annual consumption of farm products.

That stance angered United States officials who see agricultural trade liberalization as the key to freeing up world trade in many new areas. In addition, US ire was raised last month when Japan forced the removal of a small display of US rice at a food fair in Tokyo.

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The Bush-Kaifu summit was called by Japan so that Bush might quell criticism in the US of Japan's hesitant but hefty financial contribution to the Gulf war and to improve Kaifu's image at home.

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