Japan Farm-Lobby Chairman Resigns After Losing Battle With Abe

The head of JA-Zenchu, Japan’s largest farm lobby and biggest opponent of a U.S.-led trade deal, announced his resignation a week after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet submitted a bill to parliament to weaken its power.

Akira Banzai, the chairman who was re-elected in August for another three-year term, said he will step down at a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday. His successor will be selected at the group’s board meeting in August, he said.

“I decided to resign as the cabinet was submitting the bill, marking an end of one chapter for us,” Banzai said. “I want the reform of our organization to be done under the leadership of a new chairman.”

Banzai accepted the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s plans in February to revise the nation’s agricultural cooperative law to deprive it of the ability to supervise and audit local farming groups. The revision, designed to dilute Zenchu’s power and cut the fees it collects from members, came as Japan negotiates with the U.S. over agricultural tariffs outlined in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo today:

Zenchu, which has organized rallies against the TPP, lobbies for the group’s almost 10 million members and provides support ranging from marketing to banking, insurance, fuel and health care. Abe has sought to weaken the group’s influence as he tries to change entrenched farm policies, part of a broader push for structural reforms to spur economic growth.

Banzai “was very co-operative on the recent agricultural reforms,” Abe told reporters in Tokyo. “We’ll continue to do our utmost to reform agricultural policy.”

Abe will visit the U.S. later this month for talks with President Barack Obama which will include the TPP.

‘Surprise Decision’

Banzai’s resignation “was a surprise decision,” said Tetsuhide Mikamo, a director at Marubeni Research Institute. “He may be feeling defeated as Abe is pushing forward his reform plans.”

Japan is proposing to lower beef and pork import tariffs during TPP negotiations with the U.S., a government official said in February.

The government also eased curbs on corporate farm ownership and created land banks to merge small holdings into large tracts. The country has set a goal of doubling food exports by 2020, with beef exports surging five-fold.

Exports of farm, forestry and fishery products last year reached a record for a second year, according to government data. The local price of rice has slid to the lowest since at least 2006 after Abe scrapped a price-support mechanism.

“I thank Chairman Banzai for his efforts to reform agricultural cooperatives,” said Katsunobu Kato, deputy chief cabinet secretary. “I don’t think his resignation will have direct influence on the discussion over the agricultural bill in parliament.”

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