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Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday ordered his Cabinet ministers to work together to accelerate free-trade negotiations with other Asian nations.

Yet the first meeting to focus on the FTA issue — involving 15 ministers spanning 10 ministries, one agency, one commission and three other state-appointed missions — illustrated the difficulty of achieving the required level of cooperation.

Koizumi stressed the economic importance of lowering trade barriers between Japan and its Asian neighbors.

Free-trade agreements, conducted speedily and strategically, “may cause pain in certain areas, but the benefits will help strengthen our economy,” he was quoted as saying.

Koizumi’s gesture underlines the government’s anxiety over China’s growing influence in the region, according to trade ministry officials.

China hopes to sign FTAs with six Southeast Asian countries in six years.

Japan, which managed to reach a broad agreement with Mexico in early March, is cursed by bickering and miscommunication among different government branches.

“But the real problem is that no single entity has the power to make decisions that span multiple ministries,” noted one frustrated trade official involved in ongoing negotiations.

“I doubt we can look to the prime minister’s office for that kind of leadership.”

Japan hopes to conclude agreements with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand by year’s end, as well as an agreement with South Korea by the end of 2005.

Perhaps the greatest challenge has been posed by the Philippines, which wants Japan to allow Filipino nurses to work here.

The justice and health ministers both stated that they were willing to open the doors eventually to foreign specialists.

“The aging population makes it necessary that Japan over the long term welcomes specialists, taking into account the economic situation,” said Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa.

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