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Showdown: The Trans-Pacific Partnership vs. Japan's Farm Lobby

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Not so fast. The Abe government may have lost ground in the battle over JA reform, but it has made significant progress in its war against the agricultural regime. As agricultural economist Kazuhito Yamashita has observed, for example, the subject of JA reform is no longer taboo. Moriyama, moreover, is not the die-hard anti-reformer that some observers think he is. As the Asahi Shimbun reported on August 13, Moriyama has been deeply mindful of Abe’s popularity among voters and loath to take a position on reform that might alienate his party at the polls.  Moreover, he has some experience with overdoing opposition to a sitting prime minister since he was banned from the LDP in 2005 after opposing then Prime Minister Koizumi’s postal reform initiative. Perhaps unwilling to risk another stint in the political wilderness, Moriyama helped craft a response to the CRR report that while critical,acknowledged the need for JA reform. Moriyama may very well strike a similar chord as head of the TPP working group.

Finally, it is important to note that for every LDP politician who opposes agricultural reform, there is at least one who supports it, including such prominent members of the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Minister of Agriculture Koya Nishikawa, and Shigeru Ishiba, the minister in charge of those national strategic special zones.

Japanese agricultural politics has turned a corner; today, the focus of debate is no longer whether to reform agriculture but rather when and how to do it. What then, is Abe likely to do in the months ahead? Do expect him to keep pushing his TPP agenda; as he stated so unequivocally on numerous occasions during his recent visit to the United States, Abe firmly believes that the pact is key to the long-term health and prosperity of the Japanese economy.

But do not expect him to take a page from Koizumi’s playbook and stake his government’s future on the success of agricultural reform and/or TPP. He has far more on his reform plate than Koizumi ever did and is not about to risk it all for these two issues, important though they may be to his personal legacy.

Instead, Abe will continue his careful tug-of-war with those “forces of resistance,” pulling a little here, conceding a little there, so that more and more farmers and local coops can free themselves from JA’s stifling embrace and are eased, not thrown, into freer markets.

U.S. trade officials may be tempted to throw in the towel after the collapse of talks last week, but it is important to remember that the potential for change in Japanese agricultural politics is now greater than ever. The U.S. can help strengthen Abe’s hand as domestic battles play out by stepping up pressure on Japan to reach an agreement on TPP—an agreement that grants Abe the time and flexibility he will need to open domestic agricultural markets without inciting a debilitating backlash from his opponents.

Patricia L. Maclachlan is an associate professor of government and Asian studies and the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kay Shimizu is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Columbia University.

This piece first appeared in CFR's blog Asia Unbound here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0.