SAPPORO - On a late March afternoon in central Sapporo’s “raccoon trail,” a covered shopping arcade, business is particularly brisk. While Honshu’s main cities celebrate under the cherry blossoms, several meters of snow remain piled up beside icy sidewalks — with more expected.
That’s good news, though, for arcade shops specializing in Hokkaido-grown agricultural products, including fruits, vegetables, dairy products and seasonal fish such as cherry trout. Visitors can also head to a nearby underground arcade, where packaged gourmet items such as smoked tofu from Yoichi, smoked scallops from Otaru and cream cookies made with eastern Hokkaido-grown peppermint are sold.
Thanks to more than a decade of intense promotional efforts, Hokkaido has become a major destination for both Japanese and overseas visitors attracted not only to its natural beauty but also to its smorgasbord of high-quality food. The shift has given birth to a number of new local jobs and businesses.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Japan’s strongest and most organized opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact is in Hokkaido.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement last month that Japan would join the TPP negotiations sparked outrage and opposition in Hokkaido political circles.
“There are concerns the TPP will have a large impact on not only the agricultural sector but also food safety, medicine, public works, and other industries,” said Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi, who was elected with backing from Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and it’s ally, New Komeito. “The announcement that Japan will participate in the TPP discussions without providing concrete information or explanations is something I strongly oppose.”
JA Hokkaido Chuokai, a powerful agricultural cooperative that has long supported the LDP, recently said it may not do so in this summer’s Upper House election — even though all of the party’s Diet members from Hokkaido are part of a group opposed to the TPP.
“Now is not the time to decide whether to support or not support the LDP. We need more discussions,” JA Hokkaido Chuokai Chairman Toshiaki Tobita said.
Former Hokkaido Prefectural Assembly member Kimihiro Kamada said the move could lead to a voter backlash. “Many in Hokkaido feel betrayed by the LDP because of Abe’s announcement, and the party could face a tough time in the Upper House election, as TPP participation will be the top voter concern,” Kamada said.
As of 2011, prefectural data showed that Hokkaido accounted for a quarter of the nation’s total cultivated area for agriculture, contributed 12 percent of the country’s agricultural output and about 20 percent of its domestic calorie supply. Hokkaido has about 110,000 farmers.
The prefecture provides 78 percent of the country’s potatoes, 61 percent of its wheat and a quarter of its soybeans. About 55 percent of the country’s onions, 48 percent of the pumpkins and 45 percent of the corn come from Hokkaido. And despite increased imports from Norway and Chile, 83 percent of domestically consumed salmon is from the prefecture.
In a country where the low overall food self-sufficiency ratio (40 percent on a calorie basis, 70 percent on an output basis) is cause for concern — and used by TPP proponents in Tokyo and Osaka to justify their support — Hokkaido’s self-sufficiency ratio on a calorie basis is a whopping 187 percent, the highest in the country. It has an output ratio of 199 percent, among the nation’s highest.
Over the past several years, as talk about Japan joining the TPP has grown, the prefectural government, JA Hokkaido and the local media have boosted their opposition by researching and reporting not only their concerns over the agriculture sector but also other controversies the TPP faces abroad.
Such controversies include the rights to patented medicines, and provisions in the negotiating text that, critics warn, will allow international corporations to sue TPP member states and claim violations of the pact if that state passes legislation that harms profits.
On March 19, Hokkaido announced its latest findings on the impact of a TPP deal on the prefecture’s agriculture. Based on a current tariff rate of at least 10 percent on 12 different major farm products, the prefecture estimates direct agricultural production would decline by ¥476 billion. Hokkaido’s fishing industry stands to lose about ¥45 billion and the pulp industry about ¥3.3 billion.
In addition, the prefecture said that under a TPP agreement, the number of farms would decrease by 23,000 from the current 43,000, a more than 50 percent drop.
Especially hard hit would be rice farms, where 14,000 people would be put out of work. Hokkaido’s dairy industry, selling everything from milk to artisan cheeses, would face a projected loss of ¥167 billion. An estimated 56,000 people working in the dairy industry would also lose their jobs.
Despite the grim numbers and widespread political opposition, not everyone in Hokkaido’s agricultural sector is against the TPP.
“A number of farmers, including some younger farmers, see joining the TPP as a great way to sell top-quality Hokkaido food and food products abroad, especially via the Internet,” Kamada said. “Some rice and Chinese yam farmers, in particular, believe they could compete in overseas markets.”
While the Hokkaido government and local media have focused on the TPP’s effect on the area’s farm sector, officials realize other areas will be impacted in ways that are still unclear. The TPP could spell trouble for many Hokkaido farmer’s market-type stores and gourmet shops in downtown Sapporo and throughout the prefecture — places that cater to domestic and foreign tourists, especially those from East Asia.
What the impact on Hokkaido tourism might be if foodies on Sapporo’s raccoon trail and elsewhere find fewer — and far more expensive — exotic Hokkaido goodies than at present is something the prefecture says it’s concerned about, and still needs to study. Just don’t drop the smoked tofu, please.