JAPAN OFFICIALLY ADMITS NEED TO IMPORT RICE

JAPAN OFFICIALLY ADMITS NEED TO IMPORT RICE

Japanese Cabinet ministers made it official Thursday: Japan will import 200,000 metric tons of rice this year after its worst postwar crop of the staple grain and may be forced to import more in 1994.

But the government made it clear that this was a onetime decision and did not signify a weakening of its blanket ban on commercial rice imports.Tokyo has been under international pressure, especially from the United States, to end the ban, one of the obstacles to the conclusion of the current round of world trade talks.

Eijiro Hata, Japan's agriculture minister, told a news conference the industrial-grade rice imports might come from various producers, including Thailand, the United States, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia or China.

Bad weather and disease have combined to force this island nation to agree to emergency rice imports for the first time since 1984, when it bought 150,000 tons from South Korea after a poor harvest also caused by bad weather.

Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and his Cabinet made the decision after

discussing measures to combat the damage.

The agriculture ministry said rice crop harvest conditions as of Sept. 15 were the worst since 1945. Mr. Hata said he was concerned that the crisis would drag on into early 1994.

"Regarding next year's supply there is a concern that there will be a crop shortage in the period between this crop year and the next," Mr. Hata said.

The daily Asahi Shimbun said the government also was considering asking Australia to produce rice under a consignment arrangement.

Because the two countries have opposite growing seasons, Australia's new harvest would arrive at a time when Japan's shortage might be at its most devastating, the newspaper said.

An index measuring the estimated harvest showed that, in all of Japan, rice crops would yield only 79 percent of last year's harvest.

A farm ministry official said the calendar 1993 rice harvest was estimated at around 8.5 million tons, down sharply from 10.57 million tons in 1992.

Masayoshi Takemura, chief Cabinet secretary, insisted at a news conference that the emergency imports did not mean Japan's fiercely protected rice market was being liberalized.

"Rice imports in this year will be an exceptional measure because of unusually bad weather. This move is different from the issue of market liberalization," Mr. Takemura said.