Asia

Japanese rice lobby choking progress of TPP deal with US

Japanese rice lobby choking progress of TPP deal with US
A Japanese farmer planting rice. Rice is a symbol of self-sufficiency in Japan. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:17 AM, April 25, 2015
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TOKYO — A powerful lobby stands in the way of two of the world’s biggest economies completing a trade deal: Japanese rice farmers.

Rice is the island-nation’s staple grain and a powerful symbol of self-sufficiency. It is also among the thorniest issues holding up an agreement the two nations hope to unveil when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and United States President Barack Obama meet in Washington next week.

“Rice is a social and political force. There is nothing quite like it in the US,” said Mr Tom Slayton, a former senior rice trade analyst at the US Department of Agriculture, who implemented an earlier US-Japan rice agreement in the 1980s. “The Japanese are protecting a dinosaur, but it’s a dinosaur with a lot of clout.”

Negotiators have been working for months on a deal that could become a part of a global settlement being hammered out among 12 Pacific countries. The so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would link economies making up 40 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and strengthen US alliances in Asia — key trade and foreign policy goals for Mr Obama.

If the US, the world’s biggest economy, and Japan, the third-biggest, can strike a bilateral deal, it would help pave the way for the larger accord.

Motor vehicles and agriculture have become the final snags. Japan wants the US to eliminate a US import tariff that was put in place to protect an industry that supports 900,000 manufacturing jobs. US farm groups want Japanese trade restrictions lifted — including for rice — further opening a market that is already the biggest buyer of US beef and pork.

LARGE MARKET

The US was Japan’s largest export market and second-biggest source of imports in 2013, the most recent government data showed. Last year, the US sold US$67 billion (S$90.2 billion) of goods to Japan and bought US$133.9 billion worth. The US is the world’s fifth-biggest exporter of rice, trailing Thailand, India, Vietnam and Pakistan. Japan, where the grain has been culturally and economically important for millennia, imports almost none.

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