Japan and the United States moved no closer Wednesday to overcoming their differences on tariffs, which are preventing a wide-ranging Pacific free trade pact from being concluded, a Japanese official said.
The official hinted that most of their two-day talks were dedicated to discussions about Japan's tariffs on meat, one of what Tokyo calls the five "sacred" produce categories it wants to protect in the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.
The lack of progress between the two biggest economies could diminish the prospects of reaching an agreement on the contentious issue ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Japan in late April.
"I cannot say we have made a major breakthrough," Hiroshi Oe, Japan's deputy chief negotiator on the TPP, told reporters after the talks with Wendy Cutler, the acting deputy U.S. trade representative.
"We especially discussed one of the five (sensitive) items in which American stakeholders are strongly interested," Oe said.
The U.S. side has strongly demanded Japan remove tariffs on beef and pork in past negotiations. The other four products are rice, wheat, dairy products and sugar.
"There is still a long way to go," Oe said. "I cannot help saying a big gap remains between our positions."
Asked what Obama's visit to Japan next month means for the negotiations, Oe said, "It could be a goal but not the deadline."
Oe said officials from Japan and the United States are likely to hold the next round in Japan but stopped short of saying when.
The U.S. government has urged Japan to lift all tariffs on the five categories to complete the TPP, which is based on the ideal of eliminating all tariffs.
Japan, the United States and 10 other countries have struggled to seal the pact after missing their primary deadline at the end of last year.