Photo/IllutrationSatsuki Fujisawa, the skip of the women's curling team, is just about to pop a strawberry in her mouth during a halftime break at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. (Reina Kitamura)

Japanese strawberry fields forever. That seems to be the new mantra of farm minister Ken Saito, given his remarks about the Japanese women's curling team that won a bronze medal at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

While Saito had nothing but praise for the outcome, he made clear he would have been happier if the competitors had consumed Japanese strawberries during their halftime breaks instead of local fruit from South Korea.

TV coverage of the curling competition not only focused on the activity on the ice, but also on the snacks that members of the Japanese team ate during breaks.

Saito said at a March 2 news conference that the attention-grabbing strawberries consumed by the Japanese team had their roots in a Japanese variety that was cross-bred to come up with a new brand.

He used the occasion to highlight what he sees as a need for wider registration overseas of Japanese fruit varieties to prevent unauthorized cultivation of produce using premium Japanese varieties.

According to officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, strawberries were exempt from the program to protect brand variety in South Korea until 2012. In the meantime, fruit from Japan, including brand varieties such as Tochiotome, were planted without authorization in South Korea. In other cases, farmers outside those who were specifically contracted to cultivate the fruit began growing it. That led to a spread in the cultivation of Japanese brands of strawberries. Now, most of the main South Korean varieties are the result of cross-breeding of Japanese brands.

Japan and South Korea are keen rivals in the export of strawberries to other Asian nations.

Farm ministry officials estimate that as much as 4 billion yen ($37.8 million) in export opportunities for strawberries is lost every year.

Variety registration overseas requires specific procedures for each nation, but doing so allows for countermeasures, such as orders to stop cultivation.

For that reason, the ministry has been supporting variety registration through a subsidy program that began in fiscal 2016.

"I have become further aware of the need for additional measures," Saito said.