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Several years ago, at the Kansai Economic Seminar, an annual snoozefest of pompous platitudes and pretentious, paternalistic pontificating by the old men who run Kansai’s major corporations, one senior leader called for entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Reflecting the conventional wisdom on PowerPoint slides, the gentleman dismissed concerns from critics — naive, greedy farmers, silly university professors, anti-capitalist union leaders — about what the TPP free trade deal could mean for Japan’s agricultural sector. What’s important, the gentleman told his audience to approving nods, is not where the food comes from or what possibly banned chemicals were used to grow it, but how many calories it provides.

Given its history of backing financial failures, notably Kansai airport, massive public works projects, and the Osaka 2008 Olympic bid, one should treat any advice from the Kansai Economic Federation (Kankeiren) with suspicion. But the body, composed of Kansai’s largest firms, has predicted joining the TPP will increase regional industrial output by ¥223 billion, raise exports by more than 3 percent and create 110,000 new jobs.

It’s not just the business community trumpeting the TPP. Aside from the perennial protests of the Japanese Communist Party, it’s difficult to find clear political opposition. When they aren’t touting the benefits of free trade, Kansai’s elected leaders wax lyrical about how the pact will help the region become internationally competitive.

Of course, talk is cheap if you are like most leaders at Kankeiren’s annual Kansai Economic Seminar: bureaucratic middlemen at huge firms rather than small business owners struggling to fill orders and make the payroll.

An April survey of 1,400 small and midsize enterprises by Osaka City Shinkin Bank showed that only 13.7 percent strongly back Japan’s participation in the TPP, although nearly half, some 46.3 percent, said they tend to support it. About 7 percent were strongly opposed and another 33 percent said they were generally against it.

TPP support was strongest among firms with more than 50 employees and which believe they can match and beat other nations on price and service. Opposition was fiercest among companies with fewer than 10 employees and which cited worries about production and labor costs being cheaper in other TPP countries.

The TPP, however, is only partially about trade. The most controversial chapters of the secret negotiating text deal not with beef, pork or auto part tariffs, but with more complex problems such as investor-state relations. This issue in particular will have more of a long-term effect on local politics and economics than whether your local yakiniku (barbecue) restaurant serves American beef.

Osaka is the traditional home of Japan’s pharmaceutical industry. But what happens if politically connected Osaka drugmakers start getting U.S. complaints about “unfair” trade practices under the TPP? They could find themselves paying hefty legal fees because the investor-state aspect of the pact allows American drug companies to take the dispute to an international tribunal.

Obviously, Japan’s pharmaceutical industry needs reform. But while economists, and consumers, may favor a massive industry shake-up via the TPP, Kansai politicians might think differently if they get the message that lots of corporate profits — and therefore local tax revenue — might be lost.

Finally, those living outside the suburbs who expect the TPP to bring more American or Asian food to their local supermarket could be disappointed. Some pro- and anti-TPP activists believe the special economic zones Japan plans to set up in Kyoto, Osaka, and Hyogo prefectures are, in fact, Trojan horses for “TPP zones” that will conform to the letter of the multilateral pact but remain small enough not to threaten the customer base of major Kansai firms.

Perhaps this is the real reason why Kansai’s business community, and the politicians who support it, like the TPP.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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