Japan's herbal medicine industry worries as China restricts licorice supplies

Companies making Chinese herbal medicine are stepping up efforts to ensure a stable supply of licorice, a major raw material for the medicine whose import price has increased by about 50 per cent over the past five years.

The price rise is due to tightened regulations on the harvest and export of licorice (kanzo in Japanese) imposed by leading licorice producer China for resource protection reasons.

The expectation of further reductions in licorice imports has led to the expansion of domestic licorice cultivation.

Licorice, a kind of legume, accounts for about 70 per cent of the raw material in as many as 500 kinds of Chinese herbal medicine. Licorice is considered a "rare plant" for which high-volume cultivation is difficult. More than 90 per cent of the licorice used for Chinese herbal medicine in Japan is imported from China.

There is increasing global demand for Chinese herbal medicine, especially as interest in oriental medicine grows in the United States and Europe.

In 2000, the Chinese government began controlling the harvest and export of the plant to prevent desertification in licorice vegetation areas due to overharvesting.

Since Japan imports licorice for Chinese herbal medicine production almost entirely from China, there has been concern that deteriorating relations between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands may adversely affect imports.

Chinese herbal medicine makers are stepping up efforts to boost stockpiles of Chinese licorice. Tsumura & Co., one of the largest Chinese herbal medicine makers, has secured about two years' supply of the plant.

A movement to grow the plant in Japan also has become active. Fukuoka-based midsize pharmaceutical company Shin Nihon Iyaku Corp. is aiming to grow its own licorice to use as raw material for Chinese herbal medicine on a large scale, following confirmation in February that the licorice it grew on an experimental basis in idle rice fields contains an important active ingredient.

Leading construction firm Kajima Corp. developed a system in 2010 for growing the plant in an artificial cultivation facility. It has begun selling the system to pharmaceutical companies.

In 2010, Japan's self-sufficiency rate for licorice and other raw materials for Chinese herbal medicine was 10 per cent. A research team of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said the proportion should be increased to 50 per cent by 2025 to secure a stable supply.

One hurdle ahead of that goal is reducing the cost of domestic licorice, which is currently more than 20 per cent higher than that of Chinese imports.

An official of a major pharmaceutical company said it is technically unclear whether the plant can be mass-cultivated while meeting national standards on active ingredients for medical use.

The size of the Japanese market for Chinese herbal medicine was 132 billion yen in 2011, or about 1.9 per cent of the overall drug market. But the market has been growing in recent years.