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Japan may have to make more concessions to push forward free-trade negotiations with Southeast Asian nations, according to Shoichi Nakagawa, minister of economy, trade and industry.

“We can’t give ground in certain areas, but when we do make concessions, we will just have to work to gain the understanding of the people,” he said in a recent interview. “I have no thought of giving up on the talks now, just because it’s going to be difficult.”

Nakagawa’s stance bodes well for stalled talks with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to reduce trade barriers, ease restrictions on direct investment and possibly open doors for foreign workers in the health care and other fields. Negotiations will begin in April, aiming for an agreement in 2012.

If these talks fall apart, it will be a huge loss for Japan, because ASEAN is already holding free-trade talks with China, Australia, India and the European Union, he said.

Nakagawa also indicated that Japan has more room for concessions than most ASEAN countries because Japan’s economy is a lot bigger.

“Japan’s economy is huge, compared with those of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and that calls for a certain degree of consideration in our negotiations,” he said.

In general, lowering trade barriers would force prices of goods and services down and expose protected industries to global competition.

Japan so far has signed two bilateral agreements to reduce tariffs — one with Singapore in January 2002 that excluded crops, and one with Mexico in September, the first comprehensive FTA including farm products.

Japan hopes to wrap up ongoing free-trade talks with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand by year’s end. It also hopes to conclude negotiations with Seoul in 2005.

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