Both the political and scholarly debates over whether we can expect Japan to join the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP) centre on the question of whether the DPJ-led government will be able to overcome the immense domestic political resistance by Japan’s agricultural lobby.
In promoting a zero-tariff policy across all industrial sectors, the TPP is a challenge to Japanese farmers who have long sought protection from global free trade and competition behind a massive wall of tariffs and other barriers to trade.
Since Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to announce his decision on joining the free trade pact in June this year, the country’s farmers have mobilised to protest against the plan. Kan and the advocates of a TPP free trade agreement argue that the abolition of tariffs will increase the competitiveness of Japan’s export-oriented corporate sector while providing the momentum for long overdue domestic reforms, including reform of the agricultural sector. Japan’s leading organisation of agricultural cooperatives (JA-Zenchu) early announced its opposition to the Kan administration’s free trade policy. Now the protest is starting to trickle down to farmers at the local level. A crowd of more than 300 people gathered in a lecture hall at Meiji University’s Liberty Tower on 26 February to mark what has been described by the event’s organisers as the beginning of intensified local protest against TPP.
Under the banner ‘People’s Movement Against TPP,’ the emerging protest brought together Japan’s conservative farming lobby and the country’s anti-globalisation movement. Organised by veteran rice farmers, mainly from the Northern regions of Tohoku, Hokuriku and Hokkaido, the movement is a patchwork of elements in civil society. This ‘hand-crafted movement’ (‘tezukuri no undō’), as its initiators have referred to the anti-TPP protest, provides a platform for Japan’s consumer movement including the Japanese Consumers’ Cooperative Union, or Seikyō, as well as the Seikatsusha Network, Japan’s organic movement with its owners of wholefood shops and eco-farmers, environmentalists, old-fashioned leftists, and the conservative farm lobby constituting the protest’s core.
According to one line of argumentation, free trade endangers Japan’s cultural heritage and identity nourished by the tradition of rice cultivation. Kyoto University scholar Takeshi Nakano who has taken centre-stage in the protest movement also predicts dire problems for Japan in the wake of TPP and full-scale market liberalisation. Events like the one at Meiji University are a vehicle for Nakano’s push against Kan’s free trade agenda which he argues will aggravate deflation and increase unemployment, while further increasing the dependence of Japan’s economy on the US market.
Speaking at the ‘Forum for opening up the country’ in Saitama City, which also took place on 26 February, National Policy Minister, Koichiro Gemba, attempted to address some of the central concerns at the heart of the debate over TPP, stressing that the government was providing information and engaging in dialogue ‘to prevent misunderstandings’ over the effect of the free trade strategy as farmers and consumers voice concern over food security and the ability of Japan to increase its food self-sufficiency under the TPP agenda. TPP critics argue that liberalisation of the agricultural market would result in a drop in Japan’s self-sufficiency rate from its current 40 per cent to 14 per cent.
In short, the anti-TPP protest movement is organised around three themes:
fear of a decline in the food self-sufficiency ratio;
negative effects on the labour market, particularly in rural areas; and
abandonment of rural areas.
The protest also features strains of anti-Americanism in arguments that TPP serves mainly US-national interests and that Japan is exposed to gaiatsu (external pressure).
Many participants in the anti-TPP rally were rice farmers in their 60s (the average age of rice farmers is around 65 years, according to MAFF) The movement is attempting to take the protest into the prefectures and stage local anti-TPP events and deploy strategies used by their South Korean counterparts in opposing their country’s recent FTA policies towards the EU and US. Recent protest events have featured high-ranking representatives of the National Federation of Farmers in Korea briefing Japanese farmers on mobilisation strategies, and declaiming on recent shifts in Korean agriculture, including the move towards large-scale and corporate agriculture.
Should the Kan administration survives the recent budget impasse, and resolve on joining the TPP in June, overriding the growing protest movement will be a difficult task, with the agriculture lobby now once again becoming an influential political force. And whatever the political and economic rights and wrongs of the TPP strategy, it has unleashed a Northeast Asia coalition of Japanese and ROK farm interests against going global.
Sebastian Maslow is a MEXT scholar and doctoral student in international relations at Tohoku University. His research focuses on interest and pressure groups in Japan’s foreign policy.