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TPP, trade liberalisation and Japan's farm lobby

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In Brief

The Japanese cabinet decided its FTA trade policy on 9th November. The ‘Basic Policy on Comprehensive Economic Partnerships’ also refers to the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP), stating ‘…it is necessary to act through gathering further information, and Japan, while moving expeditiously to improve domestic environment, will commence consultations with the TPP member countries’.

It took precisely one day for Japan’s farmers’ organisation (Nokyo, or JA) to respond.


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The peak organisation of agricultural cooperatives (JA-Zenchu) issued a position paper on the government’s ‘Basic Policy’ and specifically its commitment to ‘begin consultations with relevant countries concerning the TPP’. It raises two main objections.

First, because the TPP entails abolition of tariffs without exception, JA-Zenchu argues that it will undermine Japan’s WTO trade posture. This ‘has been the foundation of Japan’s trade policy….[the TPP] will crush in an instant the argument tenaciously put by the government for 10 years, which has laid Japan’s claim to food sovereignty as an importing country on the basis of the coexistence of diverse agricultures in different countries and which has requested the maintenance of an adequate number of key items [as exceptions to tariff abolition]. Of course it will also betray Switzerland and Norway, with which until now, we have fought as food-importing countries and it will lose the trust of many countries such as France and Italy who have campaigned with empathy and deep understanding of our country’s claims’.

Secondly, JA-Zenchu has painted what can only be called a doomsday scenario of the impact of the TPP on Japan: ‘our country’s agriculture will be dramatically reduced and destroyed completely. Regional economies and communities will also collapse including related industries….The TPP will completely destroy not only agriculture but also forestry and fisheries. The most important things for us as human beings  – our lives and environment – will be made hollow and will be entrusted to foreign countries….The multiple functions of agriculture [a key concept in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and Nokyo’s propaganda campaign for continuing agricultural protection], such as preserving the environment and national land, will be lost as will be the biodiversity of plants, fish and insects’.

JA-Zenchu even rejects the MAFF’s calculation of the impact of the TPP on the Japanese economy – a ¥4 trillion decline in agricultural production (of this ¥1.98 trillion would be rice) and an ¥8 trillion decline in GDP – as too small. It argues that the economic effects must also extend to security (including the national defence of outlying islands such as Hokkaido, Okinawa and Kagoshima Prefectures), education and culture, and regional society in its entirety.

Chairman of JA-Zenchu Motegi repeated many of these arguments on the same day in his address to the ‘national emergency meeting to protect Japanese food in opposition to the participation in the TPP negotiations’ gathered outside the Diet building. Motegi made the added point that even if farmers’ income were compensated, ‘it is clear that imports will increase and domestic production will collapse’. This is an important counterargument to the government because the Kan administration is arguing that direct income subsidies to farm households will protect them from the adverse effects of agricultural trade liberalisation. Motegi also predicted that with the multiple functions of agriculture lost, regional employment would decline by 3.4 million.

Motegi pointed to the common cause not only of agricultural groups, but also forestry, fisheries and consumer organisations, whose representatives were lined up with the farmers and agricultural cooperative officials in the same demonstration amounting to around 3000 people. This is a large number by recent standards. Nokyo whose branches extend throughout Japan has usually only counted on a few hundred individuals in recent years, most of them Nokyo officials.

In fact as Endō Noriko argues in Diamond Online, as far as Nokyo is concerned, the TPP is not a crisis but a golden opportunity. It was losing political power, but it is now deliberately fuelling the crisis over the TPP and increasing its influence again. A spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) was quoted as saying, ‘Nokyo, which was on the verge of annihilation, is reviving like a zombie’.

Nokyo’s profits from agricultural marketing had also been declining in recent years. The dramatic fall in the rice price had dealt a particularly savage blow to its bottom line because of the reduction in income from commissions on agricultural sales. Farmers had been turning away from the agricultural cooperatives and union membership had been decreasing every year. Politically, Nokyo had become more isolated and less influential. The DPJ had effectively designated it as a ‘hostile’ organisation, and there were only a couple of meetings between former MAFF Minister Akamatsu and JA-Zenchu’s chairman. Having lost the ear of government and pretty much abandoned by the ruling party, Nokyo was falling on hard times. Then the TPP came along like a bolt from the blue, enabling Nokyo once again to galvanise farmers in a campaign for the ‘survival of agriculture’ (certainly the survival of Japanese agriculture as we know it) and providing a new cause celebre for farmers to challenge the government. A Kantei spokesperson commented: ‘by daring to stand up and loudly challenge the TPP’s destructive power, Nokyo is trying to corral farmers who were separating from the agricultural cooperatives’.

The important question that needs to be asked is ‘how is the Kan government responding to this renewed onslaught from the agricultural cooperatives’? Endō argues that it is cowering in the face of Nokyo’s counterattack, worried about upcoming local elections.

However, the extremist rhetoric of Nokyo’s campaign does not constitute a reasoned case against the TPP but is simply scare mongering. It is special pleading disguised as an argument about national interests.

The reality is that the agricultural cooperatives rely on small-scale, part-time farmers for patronage of their purchasing and marketing services, hence they would lose heavily from any restructuring of the agricultural sector in the wake of agricultural trade liberalisation. Direct income compensation to farmers will not compensate Nokyo so they will continue to campaign vehemently against the TPP and to insist that the government’s proposed safety net for farmers offers no insurance against the destruction of agriculture. Nokyo’s organisational interests are paramount. Its primary concern is the fate of its own business, not the welfare of farmers or the viability of agriculture as an industry.

The anti-trade liberalisation rhetoric asks whether the government wants to ‘kill agriculture’. Given the strong argument for trade liberalisation as an instrument for reviving the Japanese economy, the question should be rephrased: is continuing agricultural protection ‘killing Japan’?

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor of Politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy of the University of New South Wales.

3 responses to “TPP, trade liberalisation and Japan’s farm lobby”

  1. The Justice Minister of Japan had to resign because he said he had the easiest job in the world. He only needed to remember two lines in parliment. 1) I never discuss individual cases and 2) I acted within the accordance of the law. Then he was exposed and had to leave. Is it any wonder that Japan is in the mess it is having people like that incharge! It must run right the way through their front bench politicians.

  2. The lack of food can become a serious problem not only in Japan. Politicians´ don’t want to take responsibility for agriculture because it just takes money away from a state budget, not the opposite and that was an eyesore to everyone. Well, sooner or later people in rural areas could have a very big advantage to survive with (fresh) food…

  3. Hi. I wanted to drop you a fast note to offer my thanks. Ive been following your blog for a month or so and have picked up a ton of good information and enjoyed the strategy by which you’ve structured your site.

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