Although Japan promised the U.S. it will decide as soon as possible on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade initiative, it is unclear when a decision will be reached due to fierce opposition within the ruling party.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged to President Barack Obama in their meeting in New York on Sept. 21 that Japan will "reach a conclusion (on the matter) at an earliest possible date."
While Obama welcomed the news that Japan has started discussions on participating in the TPP, Noda did not offer any time frame for a decision.
Following Noda's promise, Seiji Maehara, chief of the Policy Research Committee of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, announced on Sept. 22 the formation of a project team to weigh in on the controversial issue.
The DPJ hopes to decide Japan's position by November, when nine countries intending to join the TPP--Singapore, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia--aim to reach an agreement on its framework.
But DPJ legislators expressing reservations or outright dissent to the free trade framework have swiftly stepped up their opposition to Japan's participation.
Unlike a free trade agreement and economic partnership agreement, all tariffs would be scrapped in principle under the TPP.
That means that Japanese rice growers, operating on a smaller scale, would be put at a serious disadvantage in price competitiveness, compared with their foreign rivals if Japan joined the TPP.
Japanese rice farmers are now protected by a 778 percent tariff imposed on imported rice.
But Diet members are concerned about more than just rice and other agricultural produce as likely fallout of the free-trade initiative.
Masahiko Yamada, a former agriculture minister who chairs a suprapartisan group of Diet members who are advocating a cautious approach to the TPP, and Masako Okawara, a group member, met with DPJ Secretary-General Azuma Koshiishi on Sept. 22 to submit a request asking to proceed with caution.
"Since the TPP would have serious implications on the lives of the public, including in health care, employment and safety standards, we need to take the time to hold a nationwide discussion," read the request.
In response, Koshiishi replied, "(The participation in the TPP) is a grave issue and its ramifications would not be limited to the agriculture sector. I will tell Noda that he should handle the issue carefully."
Referring to Noda's meeting with Obama, Koichi Yoshida, chairman of the Lower House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said, "It is premature. Japan should not move quickly over the matter."
An Upper House member who is familiar with agricultural policies criticized the prime minister for pushing the discussion on the TPP.
Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, set Japan's participation as a key policy agenda for the international community.
Japan was initially expected to decide if it will join the talks to participate in the free-trade initiative by June.
The discussion, however, has been delayed following opposition within the DPJ and by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami crisis.
Although Noda is set to decide at an early date, his administration has yet to reach a consensus on the contentious issue.
While Maehara and Yukio Edano, economy minister, are known to be proponents of the TPP, Michihiko Kano, who has been reluctant to support the free trade initiative, was retained as agriculture minister in Noda's Cabinet.
Kano reiterated a note of caution about the TPP in a news conference on Sept. 20.
"We need to obtain various information to discuss the issue," he said. "At this stage, it is hard to set the deadline for reaching a conclusion."
Nearly half of the DPJ members in the Diet are believed to be cautious about or opposed to Japan's participation in the TPP.
Many of them are close to Ichiro Ozawa, a former DPJ president and kingpin, and Yukio Hatoyama, Kan's predecessor.
Some DPJ members appear reluctant to point a critical finger at Noda following his efforts to bring solidarity to the party through Cabinet and party leadership appointments. The party had been in disarray due to infighting.
But the opposition is expected to grow toward November as discussion on the free trade agreement heats up.
Koshiishi, who plays a key role in bringing the party together, told his colleagues that it is "premature" to proceed with the discussion.
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