REPORTING FROM TOKYO –- Desperate to jumpstart an already moribund economy further crippled by the March earthquake and tsunami, Japan announced plans to join talks for a multinational, Asia-rim free-trade initiative.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda signaled that he was prepared to take what many consider a gamble to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which would open up much-needed markets for faltering Japanese exports while angering other entrenched interests, such as the nation’s powerful farm lobby.
Signaling the division that surrounded the move, Noda deliberated for a day before using a nationally televised news conference Friday to announce that Japan will take part in the accord talks.
On Saturday, Noda left to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Honolulu, where officials said he would convey Japan's decision to take part in the free-trade pact talks to President Obama.
Proponents hope that Japan’s membership in the U.S.-led initiative of nine Asian nations will kick-start a stalled economy -– the world’s third-largest –- and likely lead to the forced overhaul of the nation’s faltering agricultural sector.
"Japan should tap into the growing power of the Asia-Pacific region to hand down to future generations the affluence our country has built up as a trading nation," Noda told a news conference.
Experts say that although the pact would help increase Japanese auto exports, it might also harm farmers and fishermen, many reeling from the effects of the March 11 earthquake-triggered tsunami and nuclear meltdown. The agreement, they warn, would result in an influx of cheaper produce and seafood from abroad.
"I will firmly protect Japan's world-class medical system, traditional Japanese culture and beautiful farm villages," Noda said, in a nod to agriculture interests who fiercely oppose the pact.
Wary of shifting public opinion, Noda said Japan would pull out from the negotiations if even the nation’s participation in the talks causes any dip in the economy. "It's essential to make as much effort as possible to [protect] Japan's national interests," said Noda, a fiscal conservative who took office in September.
Noda's caution on the free-trade pact signals that his administration is aware that even participating in the talks that would open Japan’s doors to foreign agricultural imports will incur the wrath of the nation’s powerful farm lobby.
But many say that Japan must make a bold change from the past if it hopes to rebound the nation’s weak pace of exports, on which it ultimately depends for financial growth. Japan’s ballooning government debt, which has soared to twice the size of its $5-trillion economy, is also a national concern.
Noda has stressed the merits of joining the free-trade pact, which he said “has the potential” to allow Japanese companies to ride the rapid economic growth in many Asia-Pacific nations.
But officials also have acknowledged that it will be difficult to set exceptions on such protected items as rice as it has done in the past with bilateral free-trade agreements.
Other nations involved in the trade talks include Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and New Zealand.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda speaks during a reception hosted by the U.S.-Japan Council and APEC Host Committee in Honolulu, Hawaii. Credit: Yuriko Nakao / Reuters