The Yomiuri ShimbunSaplings of Japanese-born fruits such as the Shine Muscat premium grape have been flown out and grown overseas, and their products are circulating in Southeast Asian markets, according to a survey by the agriculture ministry.
The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, with an increasing sense of crisis, is moving to strengthen protections of Japanese-made agricultural products.
Shine Muscat is characterized by the jade color of its bunches and a sweet and refreshing taste. As consumers can easily eat the grapes without peeling the skin, they are traded at high prices.
The National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) took 18 years to develop the variety in Japan and registered it here in 2006.
According to the ministry, 1,195 hectares in Japan were dedicated to cultivating the variety in 2016, a 597-fold increase from two hectares in 2007. The products are exported to Southeast Asian countries and regions, including Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the ministry has confirmed that Shine Muscat is also being grown in China and South Korea and sold at local markets. The grapes are sold in China under brand names similar to those of the Japanese originals — literally meaning “shine jade” and “shine rose.”
In addition, Shine Muscat grapes produced in China and South Korea are circulating at Southeast Asian markets in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and others, where they compete with the Japanese products.
In Japan, the Plant Variety Protection and Seed Law allows registrants to monopolize sales rights for 25 years once the variety of an agricultural product is registered. In the case of fruits, the duration of the sales rights extends to 30 years.
However, in China, South Korea and others, unless application for registration of varieties is made within four years from the start of their sales in Japan (six years for fruits), sales rights would not be granted there, and nor is it possible to request injunctions to stop growing the varieties.
A ministry official said: “When Shine Muscat was developed in Japan, we expected only domestic circulation of the products. We didn’t apply for registration overseas, and the deadline for the application has passed.”
Fear of ‘free rides’
Learning a lesson from such bitter experience, the agriculture ministry began a project in fiscal 2016 to support domestic farmers to apply for registration of varieties overseas.
The ministry supports farmers who seek counseling services and advice from lawyers. As it costs ¥1 million to ¥2 million to make a registration application abroad, the Japanese government covers more than half of the cost.
So far, about 250 cases of application have been submitted, leading to a total of four varieties of sweet potato and rice being registered in South Korea and Vietnam.
Two varieties of citrus fruits, “Mihaya” and “Asumi,” that NARO registered in Japan in 2014, were also flown to South Korea and widely grown without permission on Jeju Island. For that reason, NARO is applying for the registration of the varieties in South Korea. In response, South Korean authorities are believed to have warned farmers in the country that there is a possibility that they could infringe on rights if the varieties were to be registered in South Korea.
In the meantime, there have been cases where products using brand names of Japanese-born products without permission are circulating at overseas markets.
The Japanese government aims to increase exports of food as well as agriculture, forestry and fisheries products, which are worth about ¥900 billion annually, to ¥1 trillion by the end of this year. However, if Japanese brands continue to be used without permission in overseas markets, that could have a negative impact on Japanese producers and others.
The Okayama chapter of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations, which sells Shine Muscat under the brand name of “Hareou” (Fine sky and king), applied for the registration of the trademark in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2017 and 2018. The registration was accepted in Hong Kong in October last year.
In March, the agriculture ministry established an expert panel to discuss how to protect agricultural products developed in Japan.
Tomoki Ihara, a lawyer well-versed in intellectual property, said: “It takes a lot of time and cost to develop an agricultural variety. I hope the developers will heighten their awareness of protecting the rights overseas as well as domestically.”
Wagyu fertilized eggs targeted
In terms of Japanese brands, how to protect fertilized eggs of wagyu beef cattle and other Japanese genetic resources from being flown abroad is also a challenge.
In March, the Osaka prefectural police arrested three people, including a man who runs a grilled meat restaurant, on suspicion of violating the Domestic Animal Infectious Diseases Control Law and the Customs Law as they attempted to export wagyu sperm and fertilized eggs to China. According to investigative sources, they had allegedly smuggled the genetic resources to China at least four times.
However, there are no laws in Japan to directly restrict the outflow of wagyu genetic resources overseas. A government expert panel started to discuss how to protect these resources in February.