Japan's increasing appetite for soft-shell crabs has led a Japanese company straight to the source.

Taiyo Oil Co. Ltd., looking to diversify into new lines of business, has bought John T. Handy Co. of Crisfield, Md. -- which says it is America's largest processor of soft-shell crabs -- from Terrence N. Conway, a former Perdue Farms executive who had purchased Handy in 1981 for $500,000.

Taiyo's acquisition of the 85-year-old firm, which was completed earlier this month for an undisclosed sum, gives the Japanese company direct access to the delicacy that has become increasingly popular in Japan over the past few years.

Handy ships about 35 percent of its soft-shell supply abroad, with the Japanese consuming the bulk of that, according to Carol A. Haltaman, who will be president of the company under the Japanese ownership. Conway, president of Mash's Inc., a Landover ham-packing company, will continue as chairman, but will spend most of his time at Mash's.

After Conway bought Handy, he invested more than $1 million in new equipment to quadruple the company's sales to $6 million last year.

With the new equipment, the company can freeze and process 10,000 pounds of soft crabs a day during the summer season.

Handy also has begun to diversify its operations, to enable it to sell more of its products year-round.

Last year it introduced a frozen crab cake, and this year it opened a processing plan in Louisiana to process and market soft-shell crawfish.

"In the past five years, our sales have increased four times and we have become very visible in the seafood industry -- both domestically and internationally," said Haltaman, who has been with Handy since 1983. That visibility, in turn, led to the sale of the company to the Japanese.

"We had not thought about selling, but several companies approached us in the last year," Haltaman said.

"It got to the point where a couple of companies asked what we'd sell the company for. We gave a price to a couple of companies, including Taiyo, and two weeks later, they bought it," Haltaman added.

Haltaman said Taiyo views Handy as a way to diversify and to use Handy as a vehicle to import Japanese seafood to the United States.

Haltaman also said Taiyo was interested in exploring aquaculture opportunities in the Chesapeake Bay.

Officials at Taiyo have "indicated that they would like to visit us during our season {from May to December}, but they plan no active management of the company," Haltaman said.

As a result, Haltaman said that the company doesn't plan to increase its soft-shell crab shipments to Japan.