The five-day trip will see B.C. selling Japan on the engineered mass-timber products viewed as crucial to the future of the province’s industry.

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Forest Minister Katrine Conroy is leading B.C. forest industry leaders on a trade mission to Japan, the first in-person sales trip since the COVID pandemic began.

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She hopes to bolster sales at a time when the province’s lumber exports have been falling and fears of a recession are rising.

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“Japan is a critically important export market for B.C.’s high-quality wood products,” Conroy said in a news release. It is typically the province’s third-largest market after the U.S. and China.

B.C.’s 2022 exports to Japan, however, were down 25 per cent in volume through the end of September compared with the same period of 2021, and down 14 per cent to $623 million compared with $723 million from 2021, according to provincial trade figures.

Overall, B.C.’s lumber exports to the end of September, the latest figures available, are down 10 per cent on volume and 15 per cent on value, $6.1 billion compared with $7.2 billion over the same months of 2021.

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B.C.’s delegation will be looking for “new market opportunities” for products, such as engineered wood components like cross-laminated timber panels and glue-laminated beams in a market that has committed to “net-zero” carbon construction.

While exports might be down from last year, it is difficult to draw comparisons, especially in Japan, because transportation bottlenecks at ports and supply chain problems have played havoc with export deliveries, said industry observer Keta Kosman, publisher of the trade journal Madison’s Lumber Reporter.

Japan typically buys six per cent of Canada’s wood exports, mostly from B.C. and mostly in the form of high-value appearance-grade lumber, Kosman said, “which is a lot.”

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Kosman added that Japan’s demand appears to remain strong, with the country posting 569,000 units of new housing starts to the end of August this year compared with 869,000 for all of 2021, as per the Japan Lumber Journal.

“If you pro-rate it (to the end of 2022), it’s not that bad,” Kosman said.

Japanese builders have also been “quite quick in adopting advanced materials and engineered wood,” the types of products B.C. is hinging the future of its industry on, Kosman added.

A darker cloud over the U.S. housing market, where builders are skittish about how higher interest rates will curb housing starts, has dragged lumber prices down.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Paul Quinn told Bloomberg earlier this month that lower prices might prompt mill closures in B.C.

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“We are below the bottom (of prices), so B.C. producers are losing money,” Quinn said.

B.C.’s delegation of ministry officials and industry representatives left Vancouver on Sunday for the five-day trip, which will include the tour of a building at Tokyo University that uses engineered wood from B.C., the signing of a memorandum between Canada Wood and Japanese developer Seiwa Corp., and a reception at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

The CEO of B.C.’s Council of Forest Industries, Linda Coady, called such trade missions “critical to growing B.C.’s reputation as the supplier of choice” for low-carbon forest products.

Lennard Joe, CEO of the First Nations Forestry Council, is joining the delegation to offer “a true perspective on the forestry partnerships between the province and First Nations,” at a time when government is absorbing criticism over its perceived slow pace in implementing reconciliation with First Nations and protections for old-growth forests.

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