Japan’s agriculture minister found himself in hot water Wednesday after noting that a state-backed bill to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement may be steamrolled through the ongoing extraordinary session of the Diet.
The furor over the comments by Yuji Yamamoto, who took up the ministerial post in an August reshuffle of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet, brought Wednesday’s Diet discussion on the pact to a standstill. Opposition lawmakers blasted the remarks as exemplifying what they said is the Abe government’s heavy-handedness.
The comments reportedly came during a party organized by Tsutomu Sato, chairman of the Lower House Committee on Rules and Administration on Tuesday night.
“It’s up to Mr. Sato to decide whether to forcibly pass the bill,” Yamamoto was quoted as saying at the event.
The remarks were an embarrassing echo of a separate TPP-related gaffe by Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Teru Fukui at the outset of this legislative session.
Fukui, who at the time was serving as chairman of a special Lower House panel on TPP, expressed his resolve to “realize the passage of the bill through a steamroll vote.”
His comment immediately sparked the ire of opposition parties, and eventually cost him the position as the TPP panel chairman.
Yamamoto’s comments Tuesday may also have been a slap in the face for Abe, who only days ago assured opposition lawmakers on a Diet TPP committee that the LDP “had never thought about forcibly passing any bills.”
On Wednesday, Hirofumi Ryu, a deputy Diet affairs chief from the main opposition Democratic Party, denounced Yamamoto’s comment as “unbelievable” and “extremely inappropriate.”
“This is a prime example of how arrogant and complacent the current government — backed by the extremely strong ruling party — is,” Ryu said.
DP Deputy President Jun Azumi called into question Yamamoto’s “caliber” as agriculture minister, urging further debate on the issue.
Even Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the ruling bloc’s junior partner, Komeito, voiced displeasure, saying any remarks that throw a monkey wrench into TPP deliberations “should be strongly avoided.”
For its part, the government scrambled to quell the backlash.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular news conference that he had reprimanded Yamamoto over the phone, saying his remark gave the “misleading impression” that the TPP bill may be bulldozed through the Diet.
“The government has no intention of forcibly passing it,” Suga emphasized.
Yamamoto’s faux pas is likely to provide the DP with a perfect excuse to ramp up criticism of the deal, potentially disrupting future deliberations on the trade pact’s ratification.
While Abe, who views the TPP agreement as essential to Japan’s economic growth, wants to secure domestic approval by the end of the extraordinary Diet session slated to wrap up Nov. 30, the DP has warned against hasty discussions, citing the staunch anti-TPP stances of U.S. presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.