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Japan Wants Free Trade. Its Farmers Don't

A rural minority wields outsize clout
Japan Wants Free Trade. Its Farmers Don't
Photograph by Franck Robichon/EPA/Corbis

The U.S. and Japanese governments want it. Mitsubishi backs it. Toyota Motor says it can’t compete without it. Yet whether Japan joins the biggest attempt at a free-trade pact may hinge on farmers like Tadashi Hirose. Hirose loses money on his 14 hectares (35 acres) of paddies in southwest Hokkaido, forcing him to take a second job at a construction company. Still, he says, if Japan joins the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, or TPP, the resulting competition from abroad would destroy his family’s livelihood and economically devastate Hokkaido, the top rice-producing region.

Pacific Rim nations including the U.S., Canada, Singapore, and Mexico have been negotiating for years to come up with a trade treaty that would radically reduce tariffs and other trade barriers throughout the region. Japan has announced its desire to join the talks, but has yet to do so. One reason is the ferocious opposition of the farm lobby, which benefits from tariffs on imported rice of 341 yen ($4.35) per kilogram. Under the TPP agreement as it is envisioned, those tariffs would disappear. Japan’s farms, often only an acre or two in size, would then be overwhelmed by the super-efficient, large-scale agribusinesses of the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.