Below is the more detailed and longer version of my piece on Japan and the TPP published over at the East Asia Forum.
Speaking of publishing elsewhere, I also am making regular contributions to the Shingetsu News Agency’s news site. SNA is a foreign independent news agency in Japan- one of the few, but well needed. They cover a lot of Japan stories on the ground too, which is becoming less common for international media agencies – see some of their videos here.
There is of course also Japan Security Watch and Asia Security Watch. Anyway, enough of the PR!
Why the TPP will not be Noda’s next big challenge
International expectations of Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko’s administration seem to have increased greatly since his success in getting the consumption tax and related social security bills through the lower house late last month. Matthew P. Goodman a former White House coordinator for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), writing for the CSIS, argues that Noda needs “to make one last push over the next few months to secure Japan’s economic future—and his own legacy as one of the most effective Japanese leaders of the postwar era.” The Financial Times’ Mure Dickie also writes that “the black-belt judo enthusiast should not be satisfied with a tax rise as his only legacy,” and along with Goodman suggests that Japanese commitment to joining TPP negotiations should be one of Noda’s main goals going forward.
Certainly Noda has been by the most effective of the (3) DPJ prime ministers. Unlike his predecessors Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto, Noda has remained focused by taking on one policy challenge at a time, and has been calm, resolute and consistent in articulating his rationale for addressing said policy problem. He has avoided needlessly alienating supporters and potential allies, and most importantly, has focused pressure on his adversaries’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities in order to drag them into reluctantly supporting his policy program. While he stumbled in his first few months, he has managed to retain influence in articulating the narrative surrounding the “meaning” of his premiership, something that Hatoyama and Kan both lost early on in their tenures.
If one accepts the above evaluation of the Noda regime, then it would not be unreasonable to think that Noda may well have one or two more policy successes up his sleeve. Noda, and the DPJ, certainly need more than the single, unpopular success of raising the consumption tax to fight the next election on the basis of ‘effective leadership.’ Given that Noda identified joining the TPP as a priority late last year it is therefore natural to speculate that Noda may push forward with a bold Japanese bid to join the growing list of TPP nations in time for September’s APEC meeting in Vladivostok.
There are however many reasons why the TPP will not take a prominent place in Noda’s thinking over the next few months. Aside from the recent challenges surrounding the political management of his much reduced lower house majority, Noda will find pushing forward on the TPP much less attractive than he would have late last year. At the time, Noda found a proactive approach towards the TPP useful as it allowed Japan to temporarily take the focus off Futenma in the, at the time, troubled US-Japan relationship. It also seemed to stimulate Chinese interest in looking at pushing ahead with a trilateral trade agreement with Korea and Japan, giving Japan some diplomatic space for maneuver. This, Noda would have hoped, would have reduced the risk of foreign policy undermining his ability to push forward on domestic issues such as happened with his two immediate predecessors.
However much has changed since then making pushing forward on TPP even more unpalatable than it would normally be as a policy issue to burnish his credentials as a persistent, pragmatic and effective political executive. This time it is not Japan’s hesitancy to take on small but powerful political interest groups, but the US domestic situation that seems to be the biggest barrier to Japan’s entering TPP negotiations. In late May the United States gave a signal that it would start pressing Japan to reduce the nontariff barriers to car imports in talks over Japan’s participation in the TPP.  Then came news that the US required concessions in six areas related to automobiles before allowing Japan to join TPP negotiations. The necessary concessions would include relaxation of technological, ecological and safety standards, tax treatment for different engine displacements, and concessions on customer service and distribution. 
However Japanese industry reacted with incredulity to both the suggestion that Japan’s automobile market was a closed one and to the unreasonableness of what Goodman curiously describes as “token concessions.” Toyoda Akio, the head of Japan’s automobile industry association and president of Toyota Motor Corp., told the Japanese media that he was “greatly confused” by US requests. He declared that “Japan is an open market without any restrictions on imported vehicles and without any tariffs (on those imports),” and called for an “open dialogue based on facts.” Toyoda also pointed out that Japanese car manufacturers were already having a hard enough time with the extremely strong yen and the weak dollar, something that should have seen US car manufacturers become much more competitive in the Japanese domestic market. The Japanese side argues that poor sales of US cars in Japan are the fault of US automakers and note that there are higher sales of foreign cars in Japan’s domestic market, just not American cars.
Looking at the Japanese media it appears that it has become conventional wisdom in Japan that accusations of Japanese protectionism and demands for unreasonable concessions are ironically part of a US auto industry strategy to maintain US tariffs, currently set at 2.5 percent on imported passenger cars and 25 percent for trucks. Believing that the Japanese will not accede to these demands, the goal, it would appear to the Japanese, is no more than the exclusion of Japan from the TPP, or the US receiving an exemption for its auto industry – something that would only take place if Japan received a similar exemption for its own sensitive agricultural sector.
At about the same time as Toyoda’s remarks, METI Minister Edano met with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting of trade ministers in Kazan, Russia. The Asahi Shimbun reported that a Japanese source had said the talks had turned into a “game of chicken,” with both sides refusing to back down, despite the Edano-Kirk meeting lasting 20 minutes longer than the expected 45 minutes. 
On June 14, Yamaguchi Tsuyoshi, the Parliamentary Senior Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs who accompanied Edano to the Kazan meeting, told a lower house agriculture committee that there was little hope for Japan being accepted into the TPP until after the US presidential election.  This is due to political sensitivities surrounding the US automobile industry’s influence in crucial swing states. Noda at the same time stated that he was not going to force a decision on joining the TPP by the then upcoming G20 meeting,  suggesting that a decision would be put off further. While some Japanese media outlets such as the Yomiuri lamented the possibility that Japan would be left behind when Mexico, and then Canada – both countries that declared their interest around the same time Noda did in November last year – announced that they would accept an invitation to join TPP negotiations during the mid-June G20 conference,  the Japanese government seemed to be unmoved. After a 19th June cabinet meeting Edano said in response to news of Mexico joining that “every country’s situation and conditions are different, and there is a need to continue to investigate and discuss with internal stakeholders.”
The Japanese government’s suspicions were confirmed at the end of June. First US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, reacting to pressure from the three biggest automakers stated that he did not support Japanese participation in the TPP “at this time.” Later US Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced legislation “aimed at preventing a new Pacific trade agreement from harming auto employment.” Then 132 House of Representatives’ Democrats (about two-thirds of the caucus) also sent a letter demanding more transparency and better consideration of US stakeholders’ interests to USTR’s Ron Kirk. This coincided with an energized effort by US automakers to put pressure on Washington to not let Japan join talks on the TPP. For example Ford’s vice president of international government affairs Stephen Biegun declared that “It is just simply wrong the decision to put in that discussion a country which is demonstrably protected and closed to American exports.” 
While the Japanese auto industry rejected the claims by Ford in particular, arguing that Ford had “chosen to essentially withdraw from the Japanese market” and refused “to seriously compete there,” the fact remains that Japan is did not participate in the 13th round of TPP negotiations in San Diego taking place now, and is unlikely to participate in negotiations in the near future. Those calling for Japan’s immediate entry into the TPP in order to reinvigorate its economy, and for Noda to expend political capital on this goal, need to consider how disastrous it would be for Noda to pursue TPP accession under the current conditions and limitations.
There also needs to be more balanced discussion on what the real factors that are obstacles to Japan joining the TPP. One such factor is that it is not just the Japanese domestic political situation that is an obstacle to strengthening the multilateral trade order in the Asia-Pacific. Neither is it that the Japanese are still necessarily hostile to entering trade agreements with countries with sensitive sectors as seems to have been the case in the past. In the last three years the Japanese have made small but positive steps towards furthering discussions and negotiations to enter economic partnership agreements with nations such as China, Korea, Australia, the EU, and most recently, Canada, in addition to completing agreements with Switzerland, Peru, Vietnam and India. Politically, while the current group of national politicians is still undecided on the merits of free trade, supporters of administrative reform such as Hashimoto Toru are very much, in principle, in favour of increasing trade relations and Japan’s economic internationalization. Aside from MAFF and affiliated organizations, within Japanese officialdom there is increasing openness to liberalizing trade relations and indeed some see it as vital.
Nevertheless, the Japanese focus will remain in the medium-term on forging trade agreements with those nations where the benefits are most clear, and not with countries which insist on “protection” for not only industry interests in their own countries, but are also essentially demanding “protection” in the domestic markets of others, such as we are seeing in the US automaker’s case.