But the pact also threatens to level Japan’s farming industry, whose many powerful advocates say that Noda is threatening national unity, and ultimately eroding his base of support, by making big decisions on his own.
Japan’s involvement in the talks marks a boost for President Obama, who set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over five years, and helps Washington strengthen its ties to Asia. Noda and Obama will discuss the pact when they meet Saturday during the Asia-Pacific summit in Hawaii.
Nine countries are a part of the agreement. But Noda said Japan must first “collect information” before it can unequivocally agree to be the 10th.
“I’ve decided to start discussions with related countries toward joining TPP negotiations at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu,” Noda said at a news conference. “I believe joining the talks would serve our national interest.”
By deciding to join talks on the pact, which would eliminate all tariffs over 10 years, Noda offered clear proof of his top priority: reviving Japan’s battered economy. This country’s major exporters, burdened by a strong yen and confined by an aging and shrinking domestic market, have been begging for help in recent months. The trade pact would give them access to new markets, free of trade barriers, and help them compete in the face of South Korea’s recent free trade agreement with the United States.
“As an export-led nation, Japan has been prosperous,” Noda said. “But in order to pass that prosperity to the next generation, Japan has to capitalize on the growing power in Asia.”
Noda had promised weeks ago to make a decision on the pact before leaving for Hawaii. But Japan approached the self-imposed deadline with little clarity. Parliamentary deliberations never gained momentum, and a government advisory panel was too deadlocked to give Noda any advice.
About half the ruling Democratic Party of Japan favored participation in the pact. The rest attended pro-agriculture rallies, signed petitions and talked about farmers losing their jobs.
Much as Japan favors consensus, Noda made his announcement Friday without anything even close to one. The free trade pact, according to government figures, would lift Japan’s gross domestic product by $34.7 billion, or 0.54 percent. Consumer prices of rice would drop 39 percent. But farmers would lose a commanding portion of their business, and Japan’s food self-sufficiency would drop from 40 to 14 percent.
Japanese farmers account for just 1 percent of the GDP, but they hold disproportionate power, with an electoral system weighted in favor of rural areas. When negotiating previous free trade agreements, Japan was able to work out exceptions that protected its farmers, allowing the country to maintain a 778 percent tariff on rice and a 350 percent tariff on butter.