Opening up Japan’s politically sensitive agriculture market is the key to establishing a free-trade agreement between Japan and the United States, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for Asia.

It was an agricultural concession that helped set up the U.S.-South Korean FTA that was concluded April 2, said Myron Brilliant, who was in Tokyo to attend a business symposium hosted by the Asia Society.

In an interview with The Japan Times on Thursday, Myron said that Seoul agreed to phase out its 40 percent tariff on U.S. beef over 15 years, but that its rice market was excluded from the deal.

“The deal would not have happened if (South) Korea was not willing to make decisions on agriculture,” Brilliant said Thursday. “That should be a signal for Japan.”

Japan is reluctant to open its agriculture market, especially rice, because of opposition from farmers, typically strong supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party.

“We all have sensitivity” issues, said Brilliant, a senior member of the world’s biggest business lobby representing more than 3 million companies in the U.S.

The U.S. auto industry would likely be damaged if tariffs on Japanese cars were abolished.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David last month, the two leaders agreed to exchange information on FTAs with other nations — a prelude to talks on setting up a bilateral trade agreement between Japan and the U.S.

However, Brilliant said it is unlikely talks will begin soon because Washington has its hands full with bilateral trade packages with South American countries that are waiting for the green light from Congress.

“That combined with the administration focused on Iraq makes it difficult (for the U.S. to start talks with Japan) in the short term,” Brilliant said.

On the issue of U.S. beef imports, Brilliant said progress in further lifting Japan’s ban on American beef has been slow.

“It’s not that the Japanese government doesn’t have the right to safeguard its people,” he said. “But we should not create barriers to beef imports that are unnecessary.”

Japan banned imports of U.S. beef after the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in December 2003. It lifted the ban in December 2005 but then reinstated it the following month after a shipment of U.S. beef was found to contain high-risk parts that violated the import-resumption conditions. Japan lifted the ban again last July.

However, the government has limited U.S. beef imports to meat from cattle 20 months or younger, citing concern that older animals have a greater chance of being infected with the brain-wasting disease.

Japanese inspectors are currently on a two-week tour of U.S. meatpacking plants to check whether beef for export to Japan is being processed in compliance with the bilateral agreement.

“I think the process has been slower than we would like,” Brilliant said. “This is a potential thorn in Japan-U.S. relations and we would like to take that thorn out.”

The chamber’s vice president for Asia said that the Japan-U.S. relationship has been too focused recently on political and security issues. He said that the economic relationship has not been sufficiently addressed compared with the U.S. and China.

Brilliant said Japan and the U.S. take their economic ties for granted so they don’t make a strong effort to nurture their relationship.

When Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi visits the U.S. next week, Brilliant will meet Chinese ministers and business leaders and attend a strategic economic dialogue with his counterparts.

“When our security relation is stronger than ever, we don’t look effectively to the economic relationship,” Brilliant said. “The political and security issues become a dominant subject and that blocks out progress in building deeper (economic) collaboration.”

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