November 22, 2013 | By

Guest Commentary: Japan’s Agriculture and the TPP

As US presidents encounter domestic policy obstacles, they traditionally turn their attention to foreign affairs. At the top of the agenda for the Obama administration has been the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, scheduled to wrap up this calendar year. The economic potential of the TPP and its degree of difficulty both increased significantly when Japan joined as a full participant this last summer. Not only is there a lengthy history of contentious trade negotiations between the United States and Japan, but there is the long-time sticking point of agricultural trade. If TPP is to succeed, Japan will need to make politically difficult concessions on agricultural liberalization.

Below, Yutaka Harada, an expert at the Tokyo Foundation and Waseda University, summarizes his view of why Japan needs the TPP. A fuller version of his analysis can be found here (PDF). 

Many Japanese industries are perceived to be strong, active, and competitive in the global market, but agriculture is usually considered an exception. For years, the farm sector has sought protection from international competition, subsidies, and favorable government treatment, and it has been largely successful in getting them until now. In spite of these privileges, Japanese agriculture is in a perilous state, and most farmers oppose any movements toward free trade.

In spite of opposition from powerful agricultural lobbies though, the Japanese government has decided to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The State of Japanese Agriculture

At a glance, the situation of Japanese agriculture seems absurd. The average age of Japanese famers is 65.8. Fields and rice paddies that have been abandoned and are no longer cultivated total 400,000 hectares (Japan’s arable land is 4.5 million hectares), while another 1,100,000 hectares lie unused owing to the government policy of reducing rice cultivation acreage. Japanese agriculture is in a state of collapse.

Potential for Growth

Despite such dire conditions, there are some areas with potential for growth. Looking at the shares of sales by farm scale, we see that in the case of broilers (chicken), farms with sales of more than 10 million yen (100,000 dollars) accounted for 98% of total sales. Similarly, the shares claimed by farms with sales of more than 10 million yen were 97% or higher for eggs, pork, and milk cows.

By contrast, the shares of 10-million-yen-plus farms were 39%, 51%, and 63% for fruits, rice, and vegetables, respectively. Relatively low shares were also seen for beef, wheat, flowers, beans, and potatoes.

The figures suggest that large farms were dominant for those agricultural products that lend themselves to large-scale production. There is less economy of scale for fruits, vegetables, and flowers. There is considerable potential economies of scale for rice, wheat, beans, and potatoes, but such potential is not realized at present.

Wrong Policies

Why has Japanese agriculture been unable to develop? One possible culprit is government policy that has discouraged farmers from taking advantage of economies of scale.

One might even say that the goal of Japanese agricultural policy has not been to develop agriculture but to maintain the number of farming households, which have tended to vote for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

This policy might have been meaningful when the Japan Socialist Party (now the Social Democratic Party) was strong, especially among urban voters, and there was a possibility that the JSP could knock the LDP from power, but such a possibility disappeared many years ago.

What Can Be Done?

In order to correct the shortcomings of Japan’s agricultural policy, it is important to have an understanding of the distorted system of protection for agricultural products. Tariff rates for flowers are zero, those for vegetables range from 3% to 9%, and those for fruits are between 10% and 20%. By contrast, tariffs are extremely high for rice, tapioca starch, butter, sugar, wheat, potato starch, and skimmed milk, being from around 200% to 800%.

Additionally, many unprotected agricultural sectors have been growing while heavily protected ones have not. Sales of vegetables, fruits, and flowers are 2.1 trillion yen, 0.7 trillion yen, and 0.3 trillion yen, respectively. Sales of rice, meanwhile, are only 1.8 trillion yen, with sales in unprotected sectors now being larger than in protected ones. Unprotected sectors are those that can stand on their own feet, increase sales, and make profits, while the protected sectors have been losing sales and continue to depend on protection from the government.

Farm Sector Depends on Japan’s Overall Prosperity

The average agricultural income of Japanese farms is only 0.5 million yen per year. Half a million yen is only about 5,000 dollars. Obviously, this is not enough to live on in modern-day Japan.

Then, how do they live? The average income from side jobs is 1.9 million yen and average pension revenue is 2.1 million yen. Total income, including from agriculture, is 4.5 million yen. This is how they survive.

The figures suggest that for the average farmer, the most important consideration in making a living is to secure a steady income from a side job and to receive pension benefits. Getting a stable side job will become easier if the Japanese economy is growing, and for this, Japan’s best option would be to open its doors wider to the global market and to seek further trade liberalization.

And what are the most important considerations in receiving pension benefits? Since benefits are paid from the contributions of the working-age population, then it follows that Japan needs to be prosperous with many job opportunities. For this, too, Japan should seek liberalized global trade. In short, Japan needs the TPP to ensure its own prosperity.

About

Phil Levy is senior fellow on the global economy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously he was associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He was formerly a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 2003 to 2006, he served first as senior economist for trade for President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and then as a member of Secretary of State Rice’s Policy Planning Staff, covering international economic matters. Before working in government, he was a faculty member of Yale University’s Department of Economics for nine years and spent one of those as academic director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization.

His academic writings have appeared in such outlets as The American Economic ReviewEconomic Journal, and theJournal of International Economics. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy magazine’s online Shadow Government section and writes on topics including trade policy, economic relations with China, and the European economic crisis. Dr. Levy has testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Joint Economic Committee, the House Committee on Ways and Mean, and the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He received his PhD in Economics from Stanford University in 1994 and his AB in Economics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1988.

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