Noda's farm reforms key to gaining OK for TPP participation

October 12, 2011

To get on Washington's good side, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is pushing Japan's participation in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement, thereby taking attention away from the thorny Futenma base issue in Okinawa Prefecture.

But Noda also must placate those in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan who are concerned that the TPP would devastate Japanese farming.

One way Noda is trying to deal with the problem is by suggesting that his administration will put together a plan to resuscitate Japanese agriculture by the end of this month. But discussions have just begun, and it remains to be seen what specific measures can be put together.

Debate among Cabinet ministers on the TPP issue also formally began on Oct. 11.

Noda plans to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit scheduled for next month in Honolulu.

In their first meeting in New York in September, Obama pressed Noda for specific measures on relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. But since progress on that issue is much more difficult, Noda hopes that informing Obama that Japan would take part in the TPP negotiations will be taken as an alternative sign that his administration is serious about maintaining strong ties with the United States.

Washington is hoping to reach a general agreement on the TPP with the nations currently involved in the negotiations, and Japanese participation could add momentum to the talks.

The longer Japan waits to take part in the TPP negotiations, the less influence it would have on the eventual outcome of the arrangement.

However, it will be difficult to obtain a consensus within the DPJ on participating in the TPP. A group of Diet members has obtained the signatures of more than 170 lawmakers, centered on the DPJ, who do not want the government to rush into the TPP negotiations.

Participation in the TPP will likely mean that Japan would have to greatly reduce or eliminate tariffs now in place on many farm products.

Tariffs of 1,706 percent on devil's tongue plant, 777 percent on rice and 360 percent on butter have long protected Japanese farmers and ranchers.

If Noda does decide to go ahead with the TPP talks while opposition remains in the DPJ, that move could upset his efforts to increase party unity.

A viable plan to resuscitate Japanese farming would require new measures to strengthen Japanese agriculture enough to survive an elimination of those tariffs.

In August, a government panel seeking to revive farming and fishing issued an interim report that included a proposal to increase the scale of rice paddy farms by about tenfold over the next five years to between 20 and 30 hectares.

In its requests for the fiscal 2012 budget, the farm ministry included measures that would encourage uncompetitive farmers to leave farming, provide grants to make it easier to increase the size of farms and to create a fund that would help increase the value added of farm products.

However, those proposals are still in their early stages, and the amounts asked for are not very large.

"Even if they tell us to come up with an action plan, we can only include items that we think are possible now," a high-ranking farm ministry official said.

If the government pushes for a comprehensive reform of farming, it would involve altering a key policy measure of the DPJ--the farm income supplement program, which distributes money regardless of the size of the farm.

Since it would involve a core agriculture policy of the DPJ, a drastic change that would lead to greater assistance to large-scale farms could hit a key support base of the party.

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Cabinet ministers discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement on Oct. 11. (Satoru Semba)

Cabinet ministers discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement on Oct. 11. (Satoru Semba)

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  • Cabinet ministers discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement on Oct. 11. (Satoru Semba)

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