US & World

Japanese officials hope food exports will weather U.S. economic crisis

The Japanese government hopes the U.S. economic downturn won't affect Americans' growing taste for Japanese food. Japan's consul general in Los Angeles opened the doors to his Hancock Park residence this week to preview a food and sake festival in Anaheim next month. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez paid a visit and sampled the fare.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: If Americans like Japanese tofu, ramen, and miso, consul general Junichi Ihara says they'll probably like other food products too. He figures that Southern Californians will likely get the first taste.

Junichi Ihara: If we are successful in Los Angeles we will be successful in all of the United States.

Guzman-Lopez: Imports to the United States of the alcoholic drink sake have tripled in the last eight years, so the Japanese government's doing a lot to help mom-and-pop sake brewers and their bigger competitors gain a foothold here.

Ihara: There are more and more Japanese sake brewers who are interested in coming to the United States to produce the sake because you have very good rice and your water is very good quality.

Guzman-Lopez: Ihara's government is co-hosting the Japanese Food and Sake Festival next month. Some of the vendors offered samples in the consul general's backyard.

One, JFC International, is the largest importer of Japanese food and sake in the United States. Company representative Karina Seaton invited visitors to sip it cold from tiny plastic cups.

Karina Seaton: Osakaya Chobei is what's called a daiginjo, which is a very high quality sake.

Guzman-Lopez: It's slightly sweet. Japan America Society President Doug Erber says it's also good for you.

Doug Erber: The high premium sake, it's called daiginjo, you can drink it, it has a very, very mild taste, it goes with quite a few different foods, and you won't get a hangover.

Guzman-Lopez: A lot of the sake brewed for mass consumption, the warm kind, originates in the Southland and other U.S. cities. Boutique brews like Osakaya Chobei occupy a small but growing section of the sake market.

Japanese food exports to this country have grown steadily. A couple of years ago, they were worth about three quarters of a billion dollars. The Japan America Society's Doug Erber says that's led to a bigger manufacturing presence in the Southland – including JFC International's move last year from the San Francisco Bay Area to the City of Commerce.

Doug Erber: And there they have the largest refrigerator on the planet, freezer for all the fresh fish that comes from Japan.

Guzman-Lopez: About one-fifth of this country's Japanese cuisine establishments are in the Southland. All those restaurants create a need for another Japanese export – master sushi chefs like Katsuya Uechi.

Katsuya Uechi: You don't want to stick rice on your hand.

Guzman-Lopez: Uechi – one of the best – is teaching TV reporter Bill Whitaker how to make a hand roll. It's like watching an amateur take hook shot tips from Kobe Bryant or trumpet lessons from Wynton Marsalis.

Uechi's done his part to contribute to the restaurant boom. He operates seven restaurants in the L.A. area. Business is strong, he says. Japanese Consul General Junichi Ihara says that's good for his country.

Junichi Ihara: Until last summer, we thought that we were rather lucky not to be seriously affected by the sub-prime loans and so on.

Guzman-Lopez: Now it's a different matter. And he's hoping that big American appetites can help bail out his economy.