WASHINGTON (Kyodo) Japan and the United States started their first talks Thursday on Tokyo’s possible participation in negotiations for an expanded trans-Pacific free-trade agreement.

The talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement were set to continue until Friday under the two-day Japan-U.S. Trade Forum. The U.S. is a key player among the nine countries currently involved in negotiations to expand the TPP membership.

During the meeting in Washington, Japan planned to focus on gathering information from the U.S. side about the TPP talks, Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki told reporters.

The TPP originated in an FTA created in 2006 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, and negotiations are under way among the four plus Australia, Malaysia, Peru, the U.S. and Vietnam to expand the framework. It is envisaged that the TPP will require member countries in principle to reduce all tariffs to zero within 10 years.

Japan decided in November to consult with the nine countries to judge whether to join the negotiations. A country wishing to join needs to secure the consent of all nine countries through bilateral talks.

Japan has already held bilateral talks with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore to get further details about the TPP.

In Thursday’s working-level talks, the Japanese side explained Tokyo’s policy of pursuing free-trade talks and reforms of the agricultural sector while at the same time considering whether to formally join the multilateral trade talks around June.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara indicated in a forum in Washington last week that Tokyo should step up efforts to join the TPP talks, saying the agricultural sector has lost strength and now accounts for only 1.5 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.

If Japanese agriculture diminishes further despite generous subsidies from the government, Japan should turn its attention to the rest of the economy — which accounts for 98.5 percent of GDP — while implementing drastic agricultural reforms, Maehara said.

However, it remains uncertain whether Japan will join the multilateral trade talks given strong opposition from farmers nationwide.

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