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Fearing the worst if Japan joins the TPP

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Here is Shukan Josei magazine’s nightmare scenario of a typical Japanese salaryman’s TPP future, if in fact Japan joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement currently being negotiated among 12 countries. After a genetically-engineered, chemical-drenched breakfast, he hops into his American-made car, drives to his job at an American-controlled company, speaks English on the job and is vulnerable to abrupt dismissal any time the company’s unbridled profit motive might demand it. Even if he keeps his job he is unable to afford decent medical care for his family — care which may grow all the more necessary as Japan’s strict food safety standards wither under attack from that same rampant profit motive.

To join or not to join? It’s arguably the most divisive issue in Japan today, trumping even the nuclear power controversy. Antinuclear passions flared following a cataclysmic disaster and cooled as a surface normality returned. TPP passions don’t cool. Proponents anticipate economic salvation, opponents warn of economic ruin. Media coverage focuses on the city-versus-country, industry-versus-agriculture dimension, with industry (automakers excepted) being enthusiastically pro and agriculture (export-oriented farmers excepted) vehemently con. There’s more to it, however, than this group’s interests versus that group’s interests. The question at bottom is, what kind of society does Japan want to be — egalitarian, or ever more fiercely competitive?

TPP’s stated goal is ultimately to remove all barriers to the free movement among member nations of goods, services, money and people. To do this seems in effect to dissolve national boundaries — what significance would be left in them? That may merely be a natural extension of globalization as we know it so far, or it may, as Shukan Josei believes it does, reflect something more sinister — the “Americanization of Japan.” That too has already come a long way even without TPP. With it, the magazine fears, such existing limits as there are would be swept away.

Cultural Americanization is one thing. What TPP would amount to, in the magazine’s view, is a kind of bloodless coup, a nonviolent conquest, a quiet makeover of Japan in the U.S.’s image and interests. The Japanese government is going along with this not because it believes its own lies about economic benefits but because the real issue, unspoken, lies elsewhere. “This is not about economic benefits but about security,” the magazine hears from Rikkyo University professor Kaku Yanchun. Territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and an increasingly erratic, nuclear-capable North Korea, make this an uneasy neighborhood. Japan needs to be on its guard — which means among other things not irritating its principal security guardian, the United States.

The U.S. operates under pressures of its own. Flattened domestic consumer spending in the wake of the 2008 Lehman Shock induced President Barack Obama in 2010 to promise to double exports. The Japanese market is attractive but not as open as it might be. Improved American access to it would be a good thing — for America. And for Japan?

Widely varying opinions at the highest level of expertise are warnings against hasty, nonexpert judgment. On the other hand, people whose livelihoods and lifestyles are at stake naturally have strong feelings. What becomes of Japan’s rice culture if the current 778-percent protective tariff on domestic rice is negotiated away? What of Japan’s universal health care coverage if private foreign insurance firms siphon medical care from the poor to the expensively-insured rich? What of Japan’s high food safety standards if the TPP dismisses them as illegitimate obstacles to free trade? What of Japanese job security, already threadbare after two decades of erosion, if American-style market fundamentalism is permitted to go even farther than it has?

Japan’s current food self-sufficiency rate of 39 percent is considered alarmingly low by some experts — compare 128 percent in the U.S., 237 percent in Australia, 70 percent in the U.K., 73 percent in Japan itself in 1965. Under the TPP it would likely sink further — to 29 percent, says one forecast. Domestic rice, wheat and beef, deprived of tariff protection, would gradually die out, being more expensive to produce than imports. Domestic produce that survived would be luxury items gracing the tables of the rich. Poorer Japanese would live on cheap imports, cut off from native food culture.

We return to a question posed earlier: What kind of society does Japan want to be?

It is a familiar American conceit that America embodies universal human aspirations — everyone would be an American, given the choice; second best is to be as like an American as local circumstances permit. The alacrity with which postwar Japan — and other countries — embraced more or less American-style democracy, American-style mass culture and American-style entrepreneurialism, suggests the conceit may not be nonsense.

It may not be strictly true either. Japan’s 20 years of economic doldrums have driven people to reflect on what constitutes true happiness. The results can be surprising. A nationwide umbrella group of university student unions that has been polling students since 1963 on their attitudes toward life released its latest survey in February. It covered 8,600 students, of whom, for the first time ever, more than half — though only barely (50.5 percent) — declared themselves “comfortable” with their lives.

In spite of the recession? Or because of it?

The decisive factor, according to the umbrella group’s analysis as reported in the Asahi Shimbun, is a spreading financial equality among students. More and more of them are receiving less pocket money from their pinched families. In 2002, 54.3 percent of students polled got monthly allowances of ¥100,000 or more, as against 13.1 percent who got ¥50,000 or less. The corresponding figures for 2012 are 30.3 percent and 26.8 percent. “Today’s students, raised in a recession, might appear to be suffering, but they’re learning to look on the bright side,” is the umbrella group’s interpretation of the rise in comfort levels, according to the Asahi.

What is the bright side? Equality. That’s anathema to freewheeling American capitalism — but not everyone is a freewheeling American capitalist.

  • Mark Garrett

    I didn’t realize that the TPP was just the U.S. and Japan??
    Last time I checked there were no less than 10 other willing participants.
    This article is nothing more than one person’s anti-American sentiment.

    By the way, the anti-nuclear sentiment is alive and well and far larger than the handful of geriatric farmers taking their tractors to town. It seems you’ve been duped by JA’s lobbyists and spin doctors too.

  • Guest

    Clearly, America is NOT a role model for health care,,,but the TPP, if implemented, should not be at the hands of any one country, and, in practise, should not make things worse for any of it’s partners in the benefit of another,,,If America can’t play fair, then they shouldn’t be allowed to play at all.

  • chomskyite

    Can anyone say “Huge sucking sound”?

  • Spudator

    Japan has never really wanted to be a part of the world community. It’s been happy to exploit the world by taking advantage of the market for its products the world offers; but playing fair with the world by allowing equitable access to its own markets, doing things in accordance with de facto global standards, and pulling its weight on the world stage have always been matters Japan has shown great intransigence in. Foreigners are a nice source of money, but that’s about as far as it goes. One doesn’t have to join the club to sell the club the stuff it needs for its clubhouse.

    Of course, back in the sixties, seventies, eighties and early nineties, when the world couldn’t get enough of Japanese technology and no other countries could act as alternative sources of such technology, Japan could get away with its unfair, exploitive little game. The world grudgingly tolerated Japan’s unilateralism and allowed it to enjoy the privileges of existing on planet Earth without having to meet its concomitant responsibilities.

    But the times have changed. China, Korea, Taiwan and others are now doing what Japan used to do, and doing it a whole lot better. Korean companies have destroyed Japan’s TV manufacturing industry and shut Japan out of the hugely lucrative global smartphone and tablet computer market. China has taken over from Japan as the world’s manufacturing centre: if you want something made, like an iPhone, you get it made in China now. Quite simply, Japan has become irrelevant. The unfair, exploitive little game is over.

    The only way for Japan to become relevant again is as an equal partner in the world community. No more exploiting the world; Japan has to start playing fair, start playing nicely, with other countries. It has to finally begin doing things the international way, not the Japanese way. And the TPP is the first step in that direction. If Japan can show itself to be an honourable, trustworthy member of this regional grouping, then it stands a chance of restoring its fortunes and becoming an important country in the world again. Success in the TPP will augur success on the world stage.

    What’s depressing, however, are the number of voices in Japan railing against the opportunity the TPP offers for the country to restore its fortunes and demanding that Japan stay out of the alliance. These dinosaurs, ignoring the new world order where China and Korea, not Japan, are now the world’s technological powerhouses, think it’s possible to go back to the old inequitable ways of dealing with the world. Even more depressing are those who want to join the TPP but don’t seem to understand what a free trade agreement is and believe it’s acceptable to try to tilt the agreement in Japan’s favour at the expense of the other TPP members.

    These two groups both fail to understand that Japan can no longer have things all its own way but has to become a full and equal member of the family of nations. Although divided in their view of the TPP, they’re united in their arrogant refusal to see and treat other countries as equals. It’s an infuriating and contemptible attitude, and Japan can no longer afford it. If Japan’s membership of the TPP is to succeed, this attitude has to go.

  • GIJ

    “drives to his job at an American-controlled company.” Well, what constitutes a nightmare scenario for some Japanese is a dream for others. Is Mr. Hoffman unaware of the fact that for well-educated, ambitious Japanese women, working at a foreign-affiliated company (外資系, or gaishikei) is often seen as vastly preferable to serving tea and being an “office flower” at a domestic Japanese company? This has been the case since at least the 1980s.

    On the other hand, it is true that there exists a deep-seated distrust of any international trade initiative endorsed by the USA. This is understandable; just look at how NAFTA destroyed corn farmers in Mexico. The debate over TPP is an interesting one. Japan and the USA are two of the most ruthlessly self-interested nations on earth, so the debate will not end anytime soon. Hoffman also failed to note that a number of US politicians actually do *not* want Japan included in the TPP, so there hardly exists some kind of uniform, missionary impulse on the part of Americans to force Japan’s leaders to act against the will of the Japanese people.

  • blimp

    High food standards in Japan? Hmm, try leave a piece of fruit out in the open. You can leave it for weeks and nothing will happen to it. Japan use much more pesticides than for instance Europe.

    Perhaps the main example is the use of potassium bromate in bread by Yamazaki Baking Co. Potassium bromate is a cancerogenic additive, however still allowed in Japan.

    Japan has one of the lowest penetration of organic food among the industrialised countries.

    Now, I don’t know whether membership in TPP or rather what the TPP agreement will do regarding food safety standards, but people need to be aware that while Japan has rather high safety standards it is by no means without faults.

  • Antoine B.

    Why is Japan frightened to use their strength to move forward?
    Exports have been the core of the Japanese success for many decades and the TPP (and it’s equivalent with Europe) is a potential blessing for exports.

    Sure the poor might have to eat imported rice in the future, but at least he won’t have to pay it 3 times the price of anywhere else…

    Europe has shown that a free market can exist without preventing individual countries to chose their lifestyle. But yes, it is more complex and more difficult to implement than to do nothing and wait…

  • antony

    Trying to convince a typical farmer/farming family that their government has their best interest at heart by opening up the market to foreign competition is virtually a
    deniable mission. Farmers are typically conservative people who constantly feel
    besieged by the threat of being undermined by importation of perceived cheaper/inferior foreign produce while being perpetually held over a barrel by supermarket buyers who, in some cases, are their only option for selling on their goods. My best friends and neighbors are farmers. It really doesn’t seem to matter how much land or wealth they own, they are extraordinarily frugal people who do not trust governments who expose their arduous way of life to the vagaries of external market forces.

    The notion that Japan might be joining the TPP to engender closer security ties with the USA while hawkishly rattling swords with China would seem to be a flawed motive on two fronts: a retardation of local agricultural sustainability — eventually to include reduced availability of quality local produce as they become replaced by lower priced imports to yield greater supermarket profit margins — and a deterioration in long-term regional diplomatic/economic pragmatism, which are crucial tenets for a high volume manufacturing nation such as Japan. Japan needs China’s markets more than the other way round. Like a lover who has ended up in the doghouse, Prime Minister Abe needs to go and woo back his Chinese counterpart so that they may spend a rosier, mutually beneficial future together.

    With the decline in the rural demographic here in Japan, further tipping the fine balance of sustainability towards a greater reliance on imports would only signal a death knell for many more farms, would it not?

  • Eric

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- Free Trade will kill people by lowering Japan’s food self sufficiency rate. Maybe not today or next year, but the not too distant future. Any country that is not sufficient in at least its staple food (of course rice here in Japan) will have a very difficult road ahead if there are even minor disruptions to the world supply of oil. Sure, imports are cheap and available… now. What if after the current generation of farmers dies off a huge oil shock made imports too expensive (remember, if there is no profit, there will be no shipments). Suddenly Japan will have to feed the majority of its people on only domestic food (and without chemical fertilizers after the first season). End result: Total Collapse of Society. And I don’t want 20 million Tokyoites devouring all my own rice and crops like a plague of locusts after that happens. Agricultural tariffs are an important tool for national security. I think they should be higher.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1360796133 Sean Walker

    I had a quick look at Michael Hoffman’s bio and it said he’s a fiction and non-fiction writer. I’m thinking he’s unintentionally exercising the former skill in this piece. Japan has long protected the politically powerful farmers to the detriment of the Japanese economy and the rest of its population. Also, TPP wasn’t originated TPP by the US and it’s not even a member yet. Hoffman makes it sound like it’s America’s hegemony club.

  • HvacNews

    Slicker than Monsanto, hungrier than Tyson lies wait one industry that drools at TPP….and nobody mentioned them…that’s how quietly deadly they are…..American Pharma! Ready to make Japanese regulatory agencies impotent with a single dose of TPP.