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California Sushi Gets Customs Okay in Japan

October 3, 1992

TOKYO (AP) _ The land of sushi has eased its strict import regulations and will allow a restaurant to sell pieces of the popular fish-and-rice food made in California.

Since World War II, Japan has banned virtually all imports of rice, its staple food, in an effort to protect the nation’s politically powerful but inefficient farmers.

Exceptions to the ban, however, include some kinds of processed rice - a loophole the Osaka-based Sushi Boy restaurant chain used to press its case to import sushi it makes in California.

On Saturday, Sushi Boy declared victory when 960 pieces of its American- made sushi cleared customs.

The sushi was seized at Osaka International Airport on Wednesday and became a virtual trade issue last week as various ministries and agencies debated this question:

Are the mounds of vinegar-flavored rice overlaid with strips of raw fish rice or processed food?

Food Agency officials had argued that the rice could easily be separated from the fish toppings by importers seeking only to bring in cheap rice: Japanese rice costs six times more than the Californian grain.

But the Finance Ministry apparently settled the question by declaring sushi to be a processed fish product so long as raw fish accounts for more than 20 percent of the total weight. Sushi Boy says fish makes up at least 30 percent of its product.

The relaxation of the rice ban will allow Sushi Boy to begin large-scale imports, and the 44-restaurant chain hopes to ship about 2 million pieces to Japan from California each year.

″We are delighted by the government’s decision,″ said Haruhiko Saito, a spokesman for Sushi Boy. ″We are sure our customers will be delighted as well.″

According to Sushi Boy, the company will be able to serve larger portions and cut prices in half by using a factory in Escondito, Calif., scheduled to start operations in November. The cheapest sushi in Japan now sells for about 60 cents apiece.

The rice ban has long been a source of trade tension between Japan and the United States, and Sushi Boy’s run-in with customs has received much media attention here.

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