KANSAI Close-up

[Columns]Chinese ban on charcoal exports causes mixed reaction in Kansai

The total ban on charcoal export, imposed by China in October, has been imperiling Japan's food culture. Japanese restaurants using charcoal as fuel, such as those serving broiled eel or broiled chicken, find themselves hardpressed to get supplies of charcoal following the Chinese ban.
On the other hand, the Chinese move is creating a new business opportunity for the struggling Japanese charcoal industry since disruptions of charcoal supplies from China are certain to boost demand for domestic charcoal.
The Chinese charcoal export ban was motivated by concerns over environmental devastation caused by reckless logging of trees, which are materials for charcoal. Since imported Chinese charcoal accounts for a third of charcoal demand in Japan (when it comes to high-quality white charcoal used for the broiling of eels and chickens, imports from China account for about 80 percent), the Chinese export ban would have a profound impact on the Japanese food business.

Poor domestic production
As soon as the Chinese government announced the charcoal export ban in September, the Japanese Forestry Agency moved to increase charcoal imports from countries other than China and extend assistance to domestic charcoal producers to boost charcoal production.
Charcoal comes in two types -- black charcoal and white charcoal -- depending on the way they are produced and on the types of material woods. Apart from that, as by-products from saw mills, sawdust is used to make sawdust briquette charcoal.
White charcoal made of holly oak, known as ""Bincho charcoal,"" is of the highest quality and Bincho charcoal made in Wakayama Prefecture, known as Kishu Bincho, is regarded as best of all. However, the declining use of charcoal and the deteriorating conditions of the forestry industry have caused annual charcoal production in the prefecture to plunge to 2,400 tons in 1985 from 20,000 tons in 1955 and further down to 1,600 tons in recent years.
Even so, Wakayama charcoal accounts for 40 percent of charcoal production in the country, which now totals 4,000 tons. Wakayama is one of the three major charcoal producing prefectures, the others being Kochi and Miyazaki. There are 168 charcoal producers in Wakayama Prefecture, mostly in Kawabe Town, Nakatsu Village and Minabe Town. Six of them used to be city dwellers, who were resettled in forests and became charcoal producers under a program launched by the prefectural government in 2002 to promote employment of forestry workers.

Boom for Wakayama?
The Chinese charcoal export ban came against such a background. However, Governor Yoshiki Kimura of Wakayama Prefecture took the Chinese move as an excellent business opportunity for the prefecture, noting that the nation's annual charcoal demand totals as much as 44,000 tons. In early October, he convened a meeting with some 30 representatives of the charcoal and forestry businesses to discuss ways for reviving the prefecture's charcoal industry, and later established a working party to study concrete measures for boosting charcoal production.
Heated discussions took place at the meeting on how to revive the charcoal industry in the prefecture. One participant proposed the use of charcoal-making ovens left unattended.
Toshio Tanizeki, chief of the Settlement Promotion Division of the prefectural government, who supervises the charcoal business, said that the government would consider measures for boosting charcoal production while watching how the Chinese export ban is being implemented and how the ban would affect the Japanese charcoal market. ""We don't regard the Chinese ban merely as a problem for our charcoal business. We will deal with the Chinese export ban from such viewpoints as protection and effective use of forests and employment of forestry workers,"" Tanizeki said.
It remains to be seen how forest-rich Wakayama Prefecture would address the charcoal crisis and revive its charcoal industry. (K)