Japan couldn’t make up its mind, so it was up to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. On Nov. 13 he made it official: Japan would join multilateral negotiations aimed at forging a free-trading Kan-Taiheiyo Keizai Renkei Kyotei (環太平洋経済連携協定, Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP).

It was an agonizing decision. The nation has been roughly split down the middle, with supporters anticipating crucial benefits to the all-important export sector and opponents fearing, among other things, the withering effect of cheap imports on Japan’s agriculture, which is on life-support as it is.

At last month’s APEC shunō kaigi (首脳会議, summit) in Honolulu, Noda declared, “TPP kōshōsanka ni mukete kankei koku to no kyōgi ni hairu koto ni shita (TPP 交渉参加に向けて関係国との協議に入ることにした, I have decided that [Japan] will participate in TPP negotiations and join discussions with the countries involved).” He added, “TPP nado wo tsūjite Ajia Taiheiyo jiyū bōeki-ken ni shudōteki yakuwari wo hatashitai (TPPなどを通じてアジア太平洋自由貿易園に主導的役割を果たしたい, I intend for [Japan] to play a leading role in the Asia-Pacific free trade zone that TPP will help create).”

Bold words — but can he carry the country with him? It’s not even certain he can carry his own party. Minshuto (民主党, the Democratic Party of Japan) is hopelessly divided on the issue. A party “project team” charged with crafting a unified stance got nowhere. Throwing up its hands, it delivered an 11th-hour teigen (提言, proposal) which, in effect, Noda shusho ni saishū handan wo yudaneta (野田首相に最終判断を委ねた, left the final judgment up to Prime Minister Noda).

That does not mean Noda gets a free hand, the party’s hantai-ha (反対派, opposing faction) was quick to assert. Noda, warned former Agriculture Minister and 反対派 leader Masahiko Yamada, should keep in mind the shincho iken (慎重意見, cautious views) of the majority among the project team, and govern himself accordingly. To drive the point home, he and others in the 反対派 showed up at the shusho kantei (首相官邸, prime minister’s official residence) with a shomei (署名, petition) bearing the signatures of 200 party members.

What, meanwhile, of ordinary citizens? A letter to the editor of the Asahi Shimbun no doubt spoke for many in demanding, “TPP to wa gutaiteki ni donna naiyo na no ka?” (TPP とは具体的にどんな内容なのか? Practically speaking, what is the TPP all about?)” An Asahi survey conducted immediately prior to Noda’s APEC declaration found 46 percent of respondents sansei (賛成, in favor of Japan joining TPP negotiations), 28 percent hantai (反対, against). That suggests opinion slowly shifting Noda’s way, and yet a massive 84 percent complain that Noda naikaku no kokumin e no jōhō teikyō ga fujūbun (野田内閣の国民への情報提供が不十分, the Noda Cabinet is not providing citizens with sufficient information). Probably in consequence, Noda naikaku no shijiritsu (野田内閣の支持率, the Noda Cabinet’s support rate) fell to 40 percent from 48 percent in October.

To sum up a massively complex issue in two words: jiyū bōeki (自由貿易, free trade). Japan is a bōeki rikkoku (貿易立国, trading nation). As a shigen shōkoku (資源小国, resource-poor nation) it pretty well has to be, and the freer the trade the better, in the exporters’ view. Farmers, of course, feel differently. Their products are protected by kanzei (関税, tariffs) in the hundreds of percent — 778 percent on rice, for example. Could they survive otherwise? Not, most analysts agree, without a major overhaul of the kagyō reisaiteki na nōgyō (家業零細的な農業, small-scale family farming) that currently characterizes the sector.

Even the business case for TPP is not open and shut. “Marude jisatsu kōi desu (まるで自殺行為です, It’s totally suicidal),” economist Yukio Noguchi told Sunday Mainichi magazine. The fatal flaw, in his opinion, is China’s exclusion. China, not the United States, is Japan’s biggest yushutsu saki (輸出先, export market). “Nihon ga Ch&#363goku shijō kara shimedasarereba, tachimachi kukyō ni tatasareru deshō (日本が中国市場から締め出されれば、たちまち苦境に立たされるでしょう, If Japan is shut out of the China market, it will immediately find itself in a bad way).”

He fears other ominous consequences as well. Kanzei ga teppai sarete Nihon ni yasui shinamono ga haitte kureba (関税が撤廃されて日本に安い品物が入ってくれば, if tariffs are abolished and cheap products enter Japan), the resulting defure (デフレ, deflation) would, he predicts, reduce chingin (賃金, wages) and deepen, as distress spreads, an already widespread seiji e no fushinkan (政治への不信感, distrust of politics).

But are tariff walls an option for a trading nation in a global economy?

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