Food Fear Lands Japan in Court Over U.S. Trade Deal Talks

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A former Japanese agriculture minister is suing the government over a U.S.-led Pacific trade agreement supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, claiming it threatens Japan’s food security and farm industry.

Masahiko Yamada, 73, a lawyer and minister in 2010 in the then Democratic Party of Japan government, filed the lawsuit at Tokyo District Court on Friday on behalf of more than 1,000 plaintiffs, seeking to prevent Japan from joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he said by phone.

The litigation is another twist in efforts by Japan and the U.S., the top economies among TPP members, to expedite talks on the agreement covering about 40 percent of the world’s commerce. The accord would deepen Japan’s dependence on farm imports and threaten its food security, said Yamada. The nation, which relies on imports for about 60 percent of its food, has cut its self-sufficiency target as the government expands trade deals.

“This is unconstitutional,” said Yamada, who abandoned his party in 2012 over then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s push for the TPP. “We will make maximum efforts to stop it. We want to spread legal actions nationwide.” He said he will organize an anti-TPP rally on May 26 in Tokyo.

An official at the Japan Cabinet Office’s TPP task force declined to comment on the lawsuit, asking not to be named in accordance with government policy. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, also declined to comment when asked about the lawsuit at a news conference in Tokyo.

Bilateral Accord

While Japan and the U.S. have yet to reach a bilateral accord to pave the way for the 12-nation agreement, the U.S. Senate advanced a measure Thursday to allow President Barack Obama’s legislation to accelerate approval of trade pacts. Prospective members of the TPP have missed a series of deadlines since the U.S. announced its participation in 2009.

A further delay to the deal raises the risk that China will set regional rules for commerce, after lining up 57 nations for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, according to Tetsuhide Mikamo, director at Marubeni Research Institute in Tokyo.

The TPP could boost demand for Japan’s food exports among the 800 million people in the member nations, or 10 percent of global consumers, Agriculture Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said last month. Abe has set a target of doubling the country’s shipments to 1 trillion yen ($8.4 billion) by 2020.

Abe is seeking to expand trade deals to breath life into the world’s third-largest economy after more than a decade of deflation. Asked if the TPP would lead to economic growth in Japan, 44.3 percent of respondents said yes to a poll conducted last month by Fuji News Network. Thirty-eight percent of them didn’t agree, while 17.7 percent said they don’t know.

‘Fatal Blow’

Under the TPP, Japan may have to cut beef tariffs to 9 percent from 38.5 percent and pork duty to 50 yen a kilogram from a maximum 482 yen, according to Yamada.

“That would be a fatal blow to Japanese livestock farmers,” said Yamada, who used to run cattle and hog farms in his hometown in the prefecture of Nagasaki before becoming a lower-house lawmaker in 1993.

He said his dream of expanding his farms to become one of the country’s largest meat producers didn’t come true because a U.S. ban on soybean exports in 1973 sent livestock feed prices soaring, making his business unprofitable.

“The TPP text must be made open to us, but the government has refused to do so,” said Taro Yamamoto, a upper-house lawmaker and one of the 1,063 plaintiffs including professors, farmers and consumer groups. “That is because its contents are terrible to Japanese people, I think. Ruling party members will press ahead with the TPP without disclosing them, which is why I joined this lawsuit.”

Thorniest Issues

Agriculture is among the thorniest issues holding up a bilateral deal between the U.S. and Japan. In February, Japan’s ruling party announced plans to revise the nation’s agricultural cooperative law, designed to dilute the clout of powerful farm lobby JA-Zenchu. Group Chairman Akira Banzai resigned in April, saying new leadership should lead reforms.

The U.S. legislation granting trade promotion authority, known as fast-track, is set to pass the Senate next week and move to the House. There, Obama has been courting reluctant Democrats to support the measure. He has said the authority is vital to wrapping up TPP negotiations.

While negotiations drag on, Australia is strengthening its dominance as Japan’s top beef supplier after a bilateral pact took effect in January. Imports of Australian chilled beef may reach the highest since 2011, while shipments from the U.S. drop to a three-year low, Japan Meat Traders Association estimates.

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