Free trade should be a pillar of an economic growth strategy that Japan is updating after its March disasters, the ruling Democratic Party's policy chief said on Sept. 28.
The government aims to revise by year-end its growth strategy, which aims to boost growth to a real 2 percent on average over the coming 10 years. The plan has been criticized for being short on specifics and light on deregulation.
"Promoting free trade will be one big point," Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) policy chief Seiji Maehara told Reuters in an interview.
"And agriculture, medical care, elder care and education will in a sense be frontier sectors from which employment will emerge," he said, adding that tourism -- battered by the Fukushima nuclear crisis -- and infrastructure exports including nuclear technology were also key.
Maehara, who as foreign minister was a vocal proponent of a U.S.-led free-trade initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), said Japan should decide as soon as possible whether to join.
Corporate Japan favors the pact as a way to improve access to overseas markets and stay competitive with South Korean and Chinese rivals, but the country's farm lobby is opposed to losing high tariff protection.
Negotiators from the United States and eight other countries will present the outline of a TPP deal at the Nov 12-13 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii and TPP advocates worry Japan will lose out if it doesn't decide by then.
Maehara also said Japan needs sweeping reform of its agriculture sector, which is burdened by an ageing farm population and low productivity.
"No matter what happens on free trade, drastic reform of agriculture and steps to address that are essential, so it's a question of thinking properly about the total package," he said.
Maehara, who lost to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in a DPJ leadership race last month, defended the premier's stance on nuclear power policy. Noda, who has distanced himself from the anti-nuclear rhetoric of his predecessor Naoto Kan, has pledged to come up with a new national energy plan by next summer.
Maehara said it was vital to restart reactors now off-line for checks to prevent a power crunch and keep Japanese industry, already suffering from a strong yen and high corporate taxes, from "hollowing out."
Longer-term, though, nuclear power's share in Japan's energy portfolio will shrink since new reactors will not be built and aged facilities will be decommissioned, Maehara said.
"In that sense, there has been no change in the stance of reducing reliance on nuclear power," he said.
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