National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Fearing the worst if Japan joins the TPP

by Michael Hoffman

Here is Shukan Josei magazine’s nightmare scenario of a typical Japanese salaryman’s TPP future, if in fact Japan joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement currently being negotiated among 12 countries. After a genetically-engineered, chemical-drenched breakfast, he hops into his American-made car, drives to his job at an American-controlled company, speaks English on the job and is vulnerable to abrupt dismissal any time the company’s unbridled profit motive might demand it. Even if he keeps his job he is unable to afford decent medical care for his family — care which may grow all the more necessary as Japan’s strict food safety standards wither under attack from that same rampant profit motive.

To join or not to join? It’s arguably the most divisive issue in Japan today, trumping even the nuclear power controversy. Antinuclear passions flared following a cataclysmic disaster and cooled as a surface normality returned. TPP passions don’t cool. Proponents anticipate economic salvation, opponents warn of economic ruin. Media coverage focuses on the city-versus-country, industry-versus-agriculture dimension, with industry (automakers excepted) being enthusiastically pro and agriculture (export-oriented farmers excepted) vehemently con. There’s more to it, however, than this group’s interests versus that group’s interests. The question at bottom is, what kind of society does Japan want to be — egalitarian, or ever more fiercely competitive?

TPP’s stated goal is ultimately to remove all barriers to the free movement among member nations of goods, services, money and people. To do this seems in effect to dissolve national boundaries — what significance would be left in them? That may merely be a natural extension of globalization as we know it so far, or it may, as Shukan Josei believes it does, reflect something more sinister — the “Americanization of Japan.” That too has already come a long way even without TPP. With it, the magazine fears, such existing limits as there are would be swept away.

Cultural Americanization is one thing. What TPP would amount to, in the magazine’s view, is a kind of bloodless coup, a nonviolent conquest, a quiet makeover of Japan in the U.S.’s image and interests. The Japanese government is going along with this not because it believes its own lies about economic benefits but because the real issue, unspoken, lies elsewhere. “This is not about economic benefits but about security,” the magazine hears from Rikkyo University professor Kaku Yanchun. Territorial disputes with China and South Korea, and an increasingly erratic, nuclear-capable North Korea, make this an uneasy neighborhood. Japan needs to be on its guard — which means among other things not irritating its principal security guardian, the United States.

The U.S. operates under pressures of its own. Flattened domestic consumer spending in the wake of the 2008 Lehman Shock induced President Barack Obama in 2010 to promise to double exports. The Japanese market is attractive but not as open as it might be. Improved American access to it would be a good thing — for America. And for Japan?

Widely varying opinions at the highest level of expertise are warnings against hasty, nonexpert judgment. On the other hand, people whose livelihoods and lifestyles are at stake naturally have strong feelings. What becomes of Japan’s rice culture if the current 778-percent protective tariff on domestic rice is negotiated away? What of Japan’s universal health care coverage if private foreign insurance firms siphon medical care from the poor to the expensively-insured rich? What of Japan’s high food safety standards if the TPP dismisses them as illegitimate obstacles to free trade? What of Japanese job security, already threadbare after two decades of erosion, if American-style market fundamentalism is permitted to go even farther than it has?

Japan’s current food self-sufficiency rate of 39 percent is considered alarmingly low by some experts — compare 128 percent in the U.S., 237 percent in Australia, 70 percent in the U.K., 73 percent in Japan itself in 1965. Under the TPP it would likely sink further — to 29 percent, says one forecast. Domestic rice, wheat and beef, deprived of tariff protection, would gradually die out, being more expensive to produce than imports. Domestic produce that survived would be luxury items gracing the tables of the rich. Poorer Japanese would live on cheap imports, cut off from native food culture.

We return to a question posed earlier: What kind of society does Japan want to be?

It is a familiar American conceit that America embodies universal human aspirations — everyone would be an American, given the choice; second best is to be as like an American as local circumstances permit. The alacrity with which postwar Japan — and other countries — embraced more or less American-style democracy, American-style mass culture and American-style entrepreneurialism, suggests the conceit may not be nonsense.

It may not be strictly true either. Japan’s 20 years of economic doldrums have driven people to reflect on what constitutes true happiness. The results can be surprising. A nationwide umbrella group of university student unions that has been polling students since 1963 on their attitudes toward life released its latest survey in February. It covered 8,600 students, of whom, for the first time ever, more than half — though only barely (50.5 percent) — declared themselves “comfortable” with their lives.

In spite of the recession? Or because of it?

The decisive factor, according to the umbrella group’s analysis as reported in the Asahi Shimbun, is a spreading financial equality among students. More and more of them are receiving less pocket money from their pinched families. In 2002, 54.3 percent of students polled got monthly allowances of ¥100,000 or more, as against 13.1 percent who got ¥50,000 or less. The corresponding figures for 2012 are 30.3 percent and 26.8 percent. “Today’s students, raised in a recession, might appear to be suffering, but they’re learning to look on the bright side,” is the umbrella group’s interpretation of the rise in comfort levels, according to the Asahi.

What is the bright side? Equality. That’s anathema to freewheeling American capitalism — but not everyone is a freewheeling American capitalist.