Last week Kyodo News conducted a survey on the public’s understanding of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Japan is thinking of joining. The TPP basically constitutes a free-trade zone among member countries in the Pacific rim region, including the United States, but right now it is still in the negotiation phase, so the immediate question has been: Should Japan take part in the negotiations?

According to the survey’s results, 81 percent of the respondents said the government has not explained the TPP well or at all. And when asked if they themselves support Japan’s participation in the partnership, the results point to uncertainty: 39 percent “Yes,” 36 percent “No” and 25 percent “Not sure.” The survey didn’t ask whether the public felt the media was doing its part in explaining the pact, but based on their answers it’s easy to see what people think. Of those who “support” Japan’s participation, 68 percent gave as one of their reasons the notion that free trade should be encouraged. Of those who are against participation, 65 percent said it’s because it will harm Japanese agriculture.

These two rationales represent the main opposing points put across in media coverage — farmers versus exporters. To many people, agriculture is the soul of Japan and is being destroyed by the mercenary impulses of big business. Others see the farm sector as moribund, inefficient and an obstacle to true economic progress, which entails greater engagement with the world. Editorially, the former view is encapsulated in a recent piece by senior Mainichi Shimbun writer Takao Yamada, who supports farmers as not only suppliers of food but guardians of the land, rejecting the “disposable consumer culture” that Yamada believes the TPP represents; while the latter opinion is summed up neatly by the Mainichi’s own editors, who believe Japan’s participation in the TPP is “indispensable for economic growth” and will “in fact strengthen the foundations of domestic agriculture.”

The focus of these two viewpoints overstepped the main debate, which was really about whether or not Japan should join in the TPP negotiations. It’s somehow automatically assumed that Japan will wither in the face of America’s invincible self-assurance. During a discussion of the pros and cons of TPP participation on Fuji TV’s morning information show, “Shiritagari,” a former finance ministry bureaucrat expressed his misgivings about the pact but said Japan should at least join the talks to push its own interests. A former idol singer who was on hand to represent the viewing audience asked, “Can Japan be that strong-minded?”

This question is always hovering above any issue involving Japan and the U.S. Whatever Noda’s motive with regard to TPP, the media invariably characterizes it in terms of placating U.S. President Barack Obama, who has stated openly that he wants to double exports over the next five years. And every news outlet makes much of the fact that if Japan were to join the partnership, it and the U.S. would account for 90 percent of the 10 member countries’ cumulative GDP. In effect, TPP is a free-trade agreement between Japan and America.

That’s why the media has paid close attention to the free-trade agreement between South Korea and the U.S., which can be seen as a precursor to Japan’s situation were it to join the TPP. As with Japan, the most publicized opposition to the FTA in Korea is from the farm sector, though rice remains protected and most of the protests are coming from beef producers. But according to a report on TBS, the real sticking point to the U.S.-Korea agreement (still awaiting ratification by the Korean parliament) is Investor-State Dispute Settlement (IDS), which allows a corporation in one partner country to sue the government of the other if it thinks a regulation in that country obstructs its ability to do business there. The IDS is also part of the TPP.

Just as Japan is viewed as being weak at negotiations, America is viewed as being overzealous about lawsuits. The fear in Korea is that American car companies will claim Korea’s air-quality laws constitute a trade barrier. In Japan, the target may be publicly funded insurance schemes or building-safety standards. And since the U.S. has more lawyers and money, the feeling is that Americans would win every lawsuit they brought to court.

Leading the charge against Japan’s involvement is Takeshi Nakano, an associate professor at Kyoto University and former finance ministry official who has been interviewed by a number of news programs and publications. Nakano says Japan can’t hope to gain much in exports to Asia through the TPP since all members except America are net exporters. And as for the long-term hope that the TPP will eventually persuade China to open its markets, he says China has shown its contempt for free trade by manipulating the value of the yuan. Moreover, cheaper products from the U.S. would aggravate deflation, thus putting even more downward pressure on wages.

Advocates for either side tend to play their most dramatic hand. So while the business lobby organization Keidanren says that without the TPP future growth will continue to be stunted, the cabinet office estimates the boost to the economy from the TPP will amount to only ¥27 trillion over a 10-year period. And while farmers claim that the TPP will force them out of work, 70 percent of all Japanese farmers only work the land part-time and make the bulk of their income doing something other than farming — such as working in factories for those major companies who are urging the government to join the TPP.

The point is that Japan could negotiate more advantageous terms — it could protect some farm products, just as Korea does — but the longer Japan waits, the weaker its bargaining position. Lack of will is the problem, in terms of both diplomacy and public relations. If the public doesn’t seem to know what to think, it’s because the government doesn’t seem to know what it wants.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com