YAMAGATA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party faces a major test of its support from farmers in the coming Upper House election, the first nationwide vote since Japan and 11 other countries signed a trade pact that opens the agricultural sector to increased international competition.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement is a key growth policy for Abe’s government, enabling Japanese companies to make deeper inroads into overseas markets to make up for shrinking domestic demand amid the country’s declining population.
But farmers have persistently opposed the trade initiative since Japan joined talks on the pact in 2013, saying it will put the country’s heavily protected farm sector into fierce competition with products from major agricultural exporters such as the United States and Australia.
A large number of small-scale farmers in Japan have resisted consolidation of farmland that would create more large-scale farms, generate economies of scale and raise productivity.
The government estimates the trade treaty will boost Japan’s real gross domestic product by ¥13.6 trillion ($133.5 billion) or 2.59 percent from the fiscal 2014 level.
But falls in prices resulting from competition with cheaper imports is expected to reduce domestic production of agriculture, forestry and fishery products by up to ¥210 billion, according to the estimate.
“We have to make aggressive reforms to protect our important agricultural sector,” Abe said in a stump speech last month in Yamagata Prefecture, a major fruit-producing region.
Japan will eventually remove tariffs on 95 percent of imported products in value terms under the accord.
The ruling coalition of the LDP and its junior partner Komeito stresses that duties on about 20 percent of agricultural, forestry and fishery products will remain.
But some opposition parties claim the TPP is unacceptable and the main opposition force, the Democratic Party, has denounced the ruling camp for having disclosed few details of the negotiations on the treaty, which it says makes it hard to reach an informed decision on whether it should be ratified.
“Our understanding is that the TPP is something like a fatal shot,” said Yoshihiro Yoshida, who runs a cherry orchard in Yamagata, Japan’s largest cherry-growing prefecture.
The 8.5 percent tariff on imported cherries will be eliminated in several stages over six years after the TPP is enacted, possibly as early as 2018.
The abolition of the duty in six years’ time makes farmers feel they are “being strangled gradually,” the 74-year-old cherry farmer said.
Japanese cherry farmers could lose their customers not just to imported cherries but also to other types of foreign fruit, as consumers will have a wider variety of fruits available, he said.
Farmers have traditionally been supporters of the LDP, with their agricultural lobbying organizations backing the party’s candidates.
But they have taken a different approach recently since the TPP has emerged as a major issue potentially affecting their business.
Among regional political groups of agricultural cooperatives in six agriculture-heavy prefectures in northeastern Japan, those in five prefectures, including Yamagata, decided not to endorse any candidate in the Upper House election and let their members decide who to vote for on their own.
Providing no endorsement to ruling party candidates means the agricultural cooperatives in the five prefectures are effectively backing opposition candidates, said Shoichi Doguchi, an official of the Yamagata branch office of an agricultural association called Japan Family Farmers Movement, which opposes the trade agreement.
The LDP is backing a former senior official of an affiliate of the local agricultural cooperative in Yamagata, Kaoru Tsukino, in the prefectural electoral district in an effort to attract farm votes.
Tsukino said in a speech at a ceremony to start his election campaign on June 22 that he expects a tough election race against independent candidate Yasue Funayama, who is being jointly fielded by opposition parties.
A representative of Tsukino’s support group said at the ceremony that the opposition candidate had a lead but did not elaborate.
Funayama said that she will make the TPP the most important issue during her campaign, as she believes people in Yamagata are concerned about the agreement in the absence of full details on how the deal was reached.
Yamagata has around 100,000 farm voters, accounting for roughly 10 percent of the total number of voters in the prefecture, said Doguchi.
Banking on the effect of the TPP, Abe said during the speech in Yamagata that the government aims to boost farm, fishery and forestry exports to ¥1 trillion a year earlier than the originally targeted 2020.
Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam will remove tariffs on nearly all imported items under the TPP, which covers about 40 percent of the global economy.
For some Japanese farmers, the new trade initiative is an opportunity to expand their businesses into overseas markets.
But only a handful of farmers with good management and marketing skills can be successful, Yoshida said.
“It’s impossible (to export cherries) because they don’t keep for a long time,” he said. They have to reach customers a day or two after they are picked to sell them as high-quality cherries, he said.
For farmers of such produce, the TPP offers little room to benefit from increased access to overseas markets.
“Freshness is the only strength we have in competition with foreign products,” Yoshida said.
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