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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 17, 2005

Japan's $100 apples find eager market

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post

HIROSAKI, Japan Inside a fragrant warehouse in this snowy northern village, orchard farmer Hisanobu Katayama watched as his workers gingerly boxed what he proudly called "the Rolls-Royce of apples."

As big as softballs and as shiny as gems, the precious produce typically goes from the farm to the glitzy retailers of Japan's big cities where the high prices charged for such fruit have earned this nation its reputation as the land of the $15 apple.

But this year, the most costly crates of Katayama's "Japan's Best" apples are bypassing Tokyo's chic Ginza district and heading to China instead. There, Japanese apples are being scooped up by the Lamborghini-driving, Gucci-toting nouveau riche in Beijing and Dalian at $17 apiece, or roughly 100 times the price of a Chinese apple. Some of the finest specimens, with dragon designs and Chinese characters in their peels, retail for more than $100 each.

Katayama's exports to China have soared from two to 20 tons over the past three years despite China's rank as the world's largest apple producer. As developing nations press the industrialized world to open their doors to cheaper foreign produce during the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong this week, Katayama's success explains how he and his peers hope to prosper in the age of globalization by cultivating an export market for boutique fruit.

"We've discovered that the richest Chinese are now willing to pay more than a Japanese for the best possible apple," said Katayama, 45, whose apples are also popping up inside London's Marks & Spencer and the banquet halls of Taipei.

"The more expensive it is, the more they want it. That's great news for us, because it is the only way Japanese farmers are going to survive."

The crates of "Japan's Best" apples being shipped overseas are only part of a niche-market export boom from high-end Japanese farms. It includes $240 musk melons flying off to Thailand, $3 strawberries going to Hong Kong and $170 square-shaped watermelons for Kuwait.

Officials estimate Japanese fruit exports will hit at least 25,000 tons in 2005, or more than double the 1999 figure. While Japan's total agricultural exports of $2 billion still amount to only 2 percent of its overall farm production, government officials hope to double exports within five years.

To be sure, through luxury fruits the Japanese are exporting their own culinary aesthetic. Apples in Japan, for example, are prized as much for beauty as for taste. But in the past two to three years, foreigners have begun to make up a growing percentage of the high-end fruit sales.

"Japan may well be beaten by developing nations with cheaper farm and fishery products," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said at an agricultural conference in Tokyo this year. "But I think Japan can still compete on the international market by exporting more expensive and delicious goods."