Not simple

from Press News, posted 04/13/2013 - 22:16

As part of the new LDP government’s strategy to shock (re)start the Japanese economy, it was reported yesterday that Japan had reached a deal with the U.S. on bilateral trade issues that clears the way for the world’s third-largest economy to join talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement as soon as July.

There is a stumbling block, however, as noted by today’s Economist: agriculture. Not only are there a lot of Japanese farmers – about 1.5 million of them (electorally they are a significant voting bloc) – but also historically the powerful agricultural lobby has been a big player within the LDP. Although there is bound to be a backlash to the TPP move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be calculating that, during the period of his post-election honeymoon and enjoying as he does sky-high approval ratings in the polls, now is the time to make hard decisions on agriculture.

Certainly, there has long been general agreement in Japan (at least among policymakers) that something must be done. For instance, a tariff of nearly 800% on imported rice may help keep Japanese rice growers in business but the economic distortion and cost to consumers also need to be considered. A sense of urgency was heightened on the agricultural issue after the Fukushima disaster two years ago when concerns about food safety came to the fore. In the end, the DPJ government of the time was unable to force through major changes; today’s LDP government may do better.

Moreover, the agriculture issue is not just about consumer prices, protectionist tariffs and Japan’s desire to join the TPP and other free-trade agreements. With an average age of 70 years and average farm sizes outside of Hokkaido of less than one hectare, the situation of Japanese farmers is also difficult. The situation of this farming couple pictured below, still struggling to farm their land while in their eighties, is not at all uncommon.

While the Economist and other news media have covered the TPP news and its implications quite adequately, a lengthier more nuanced treatment of both the free trade and agricultural issues (including food safety) is to be found in a book recently published by NIAS Press: After the Great East Japan Earthquake: Political and Policy Change in Post-Fukushima Japan, edited by Dominic Al-Badri and Gijs Berends. The book argues that TPP entry would also have an adverse effect on reconstruction after the 2011 disaster. Wider issues like energy and climate policies are also examined.

Copies of the book are available in Asia and Europe (even finally at NIAS Press!) and any day now will arrive at our North American warehouse in Pennsylvania.


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