Focus: Structural Reform

JETRO, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, NYC, NY 10020April 19, 2005

Free Trade Agreements Strengthen Domestic Reform Efforts in Japan

Japan was late to accept the need for the bilateral and regional free trade agreements (FTA) and economic partnership agreements (EPA) that have been rising in prominence in recent years. Seeing, however, that these mechanisms can enhance global trade as well as drive domestic reform, Japan has joined other nations in seeking these arrangements.

Motivated by both a desire to improve market access and increase domestic efficiency through imported products and services, Japan entered into its first FTA with Singapore in 2003 and a second agreement with Mexico this month. Japan has also completed negotiations with the Philippines and is currently active or considering FTA talks with ASEAN as a whole, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Chile,
Indonesia, India and several other nations.

To build on this success, Japan is now seeking to enter into additional FTAs with advanced economies. Progress toward reaching this objective may be seen this week during Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s visit to Japan on April 21st. At this time, he is expected to press for the start of Japan-Australia Free Trade Agreement negotiations. As an advanced economy with a highly competitive agricultural and service sector – this can be a serious test of Japan’s FTA/EPA involvement -- and Japan’s ability to utilize FTAs as a reform tool.

The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) provides the following information, which examines these issues and other relevant developments in greater detail.

The Rising Importance of Bilateral Trade and Economic Partnership Agreements

Since the end of the Second World War, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and since 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has served as the preferred forum for liberalizing international trade. Multilateral agreements reduce trade distortions, maximize global efficiency and ensure non-discrimination with potential benefits for all parties. Eight rounds of multilateral negotiations have been successfully concluded since 1946 -- making major contributions to worldwide economic growth and living standards. The Uruguay Round, for example, adopted after twelve years of negotiations in 1994, led to the establishment of the WTO and inclusion of agriculture and services within the multilateral trade regime. It has also provided numerous other benefits that help to facilitate trade flows around the world.

Given the slow and laborious nature of multilateral trade negotiations, however, many nations, including Japan, are now moving to supplement these multilateral mechanisms with regional and bilateral agreements. Traditionally, these agreements have been seen as divisive, given the belief they can cause trade diversion and distortions, undermining the multilateral system through the preferential treatment given to the parties incorporated within these agreements.

Nevertheless, since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, interest in regional trade agreements has accelerated. Today over 160 of these arrangements have been notified under the GATT and WTO. In addition, over 100 new agreements are anticipated by the end of 2005. Regional or bilateral trade agreements are seen to allow faster results, to enable trading partners to address specialized issues, and to achieve liberalization beyond what is possible through multilateral consensus alone. Properly drafted and implemented, they can provide building blocks that can be incorporated within the multilateral trade agenda.

FTA/EPAs Can Serve as an Engine to Promote Domestic Growth and Reform

Japan has traditionally emphasized multilateral mechanisms within its trade policies. In fact, the nation, has been a leader in trying to break the deadlock in negotiations that has prevented the current Doha Round from moving forward. Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI),Shoichi Nakagawa emphasized this commitment in a recent Financial Times interview following meetings with six Asian WTO members that sought to advance current multilateral trade talks. Minister Nakagawa noted “The benefits to be reaped from these negotiations could help contribute to global economic growth and alleviate poverty, …. We are taking an offensive stance that can bring benefits to member countries.”

Combined with domestic pressure to protect its uncompetitive agricultural sector, Japan has traditionally been circumspect about FTAs, as these arrangements generally require a comprehensive elimination of customs duties. The worldwide trend toward a greater reliance on bilateral and regional negotiations, however, as well as the need to navigate an increasingly complex multilateral trade agenda, has caused this attitude to change. Former METI Vice-Minister for International Affairs, Tadakatsu Sano commented on this trend following the collapse of talks during the 2003 WTO ministerial-level meeting in Cancun, Mexico, stating, "Japan will now shift a major portion of its focus to FTAs."

FTAs are valued in Japan, as in the United States, for their ability to expand market access. Indeed, many Japanese private companies are calling for FTAs as a vehicle that will facilitate their international activities and provide them with the same terms and access to third countries as those enjoyed by other trading partners who have established FTA/EPAs in these markets. Equally important, however, is the ability of FTAs to serve as a liberalizing force. This is due to their ability to introduce the market forces into sectors that have not been challenged sufficiently in the past through true and open international competition.

This sentiment can be seen in a 2002 article by Visiting Brookings Institution Fellow Naoko Munakata. She stated “By gradually adopting FTAs, Japanese leaders hope to break the policy deadlock inside the country -- by demonstrating that special interests (such as the agricultural sector) can face competition and reform.” In addition, Munakata noted “By carefully crafting a set of free trade agreements, Japan's policymakers are slowly forcing the economic powers-that-be at home to face reality—and loosen their stranglehold on economic policymaking.”

Japan's major trading partners are East Asia, North America, and Europe. These three regions account for approximately 80% of Japan's trade. Since North America and Europe are industrialized countries, which possess generally low tariff rates, Japan initially emphasized the development of FTAs in East Asia, where the potential benefits are much greater. According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of 2002, tariff rates in the United States averaged 3.6% and in the European Union, 4.1%. In comparison China possessed an average 10% tariff; Malaysia, 14.5%; the Republic of Korea, 16.1%; the Philippines, 25.6%; and Indonesia, 37.5%).

Japan also moved to expeditiously negotiate an FTA with Mexico. This became a priority as Japanese businesses had to pay relatively high tariff rates, especially in comparison to those countries within NAFTA and the European Union, which had already concluded FTAs with Mexico. As Ms. Munakata noted in her previously referenced article “Countries that do not have an FTA with Mexico, however, face a stiff 16.5% average tariff on imports to that country. In other words, if you don't have an FTA with Mexico, you are at a severe disadvantage. That (wa)s a real problem for Japan’s exporters—and create(d) significant momentum in Japan for achieving an FTA with Mexico.”

Domestic Inefficiencies Have Influenced Japanese FTA/EPA Negotiations

The shift toward a greater reliance on FTA/EPAs has not been easy. Nor has it been without problems and pain. Many analysts cite the case of Japanese farmers and agricultural producers, who have traditionally been able to exert strong influence to protect their interests. These analysts note this resistance to change has impinged on the nations ability to remove the inefficiencies that constrain growth and the overall competitiveness of Japan’s domestic economy. Notwithstanding these, and other barriers within sectors that lack international competitiveness, Prime Minister Koizumi and his government understand that Japan’s long-term competitiveness is at least partially predicated on the benefits that can be realized through free trade and economic partnership agreements.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Japan’s accord with Mexico, which was signed last year following more than 24 months of particularly hard negotiations became the first FTA to affect Japan’s agriculture sector. Bridges, a news digest published by the U.N.-affiliated International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) reported this agreement lowers tariffs on Mexican exports including pork, chicken, and oranges. It notes within the next ten years, this agreement is scheduled to phase out tariffs on 90 percent of goods traded between these two nations, at which time, 98 percent of Japanese exports and 87 percent of Mexican ones will receive duty-free market access. This includes immediately lowering tariffs on Mexican pork through the establishment of a low-tariff import quota. Japanese pig farmers have never faced competition before. Similar quotas have been established for chicken, beef, oranges, and orange juice. Tariffs on Mexican mangoes and avocados have been eliminated. Bridges reports the quotas will be expanded in 2009. In addition, Mexico established a tariff-free import quota for Japanese automobiles. It is to eliminate these tariffs altogether in seven years.

Further Movement Toward Structural Reform in Japan Now in Progress

Despite continuing resistance from domestic special interests who would suffer from increased international competition, the general trend toward a greater reliance on FTAs is providing reformers with an opportunity to accelerate change in Japan’s domestic economy.

Many analysts also point out the Koizumi Administration’s reform policies have the full support of urban voters, who must bear the higher prices that must be paid for protected Japanese agricultural products. This provides another important force for change. The Prime Minister’s commitment to reform can be seen in his appointments of Agricultural Ministers -- who have been entrusted with the mission of promoting FTAs and agricultural reform. Former Agriculture Minister Kamei and the current minister, Mr. Shimamura, are both from urban areas. So are their primary constituencies. Minister Shimamura, in particular enjoys the support of Japan’ restaurant industry, which has increased its revenues and profitability, partially through the use of inexpensive imported products.

In another significant development, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) now developing a new agricultural policy, which will be announced in the near future. It will constitute a change from the maintenance of prices through high customs duties, to one that implements a system for supporting the incomes of farming families. The originations of this policy change were described in a December 2003 Nihon Keizai Shimbun column by Kazuhita Yamashita, a MAFF official serving as a Senior Fellow at Japan’s Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry. In this article, Yamashita comments “If agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of farmers through direct payments, the nation will foster farming households that can take responsibility for supplying food, as well as cut expenses by increasing the size of farms. Such a move will reduce costs and transform the fiscal burden imposed by current agricultural policy into benefits for consumers. This is an agricultural policy that puts consumers first. Isn't it time to return agricultural policy to the long-ignored reformist roots of the former Agricultural Basic Law?”

In addition, the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, which reports directly to Japan’s Prime Minister, has repeatedly said, through Toyota chairman, Hiroshi Okuda that serious attention should be given to domestic structural reform in areas such as agriculture, services, and the mobility of people.

Indeed, this sentiment can be seen in an editorial published last January in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. It emphasized the relationships between FTAs and structural reform, concluding: “With more FTA negotiations ahead, Koizumi will have to make a major political push to achieve significant structural reform in agriculture.”

Success with Australia Would Facilitate Structural Reform Efforts as Well

Australia’s Prime Minister, Mr. John Howard, who views passage of an FTA with Japan as a priority, is scheduled to visit Japan on April 21st to attend the Expo 2005 Exposition in Aichi. Facing pressure from Australian farmers, he is expected to push hard to establish a date to begin FTA negotiations with Japan.

Two-way trade between Australia and Japan totaled approximately $44.3 billion last year, and goods imported into Japan from Australia include steel, but just as importantly, wheat, sugar, beef, and dairy products. At the same time Australian companies and consumers provides a ready market for Japanese firms.

An FTA with Australia could in many ways be regarded as having the potential to impact Japan more than any other agreement to date. That is because this would be its first agreement with an advanced economy -- which possesses highly competitive agricultural and service industries. Progress in these areas will serve to introduce efficiencies and structural reform into sectors that have lacked free and open competition. Closer relations with Australia would also help to strengthen Japan’s energy and food security and provide it with a closer relationship with a nation that shares its strong commitment to the modern values of democracy, constitutionalism and capitalism.

While the benefits of an FTA is clear – Australia is a major agricultural exporter. It is therefore not likely to be satisfied with Japan’s practice -- utilized in previous FTA negotiations -- of freeing up small portions of its agricultural products market in the expectation a transition can take place gradually over time.

In fact many predicted Japanese special interests, would move to block these negotiations. Prime Minister Howard, however, is said to have invested a lot of time and political capital in developing a close relationship with Japan. This is perhaps best exemplified in his moving last February, to break a two-year policy not to increase Australia’s military in Iraq, following a request by Prime Minister Koizumi that Australia provide increased security in Samawah, Iraq, where Japanese Self-Defense forces are stationed.

Australia’s commitment to place 450 troops in harm’s way – doubling its military presence in Iraq to help protect Japanese forces -- should not be seen as a factor in these trade talks. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer emphasized this point in a recent comment that "We don't put people's lives on the line to get access to markets". Nevertheless, this firm and caring gesture on the part of the Australian people will make it very difficult for Japan to reject the prospect of an FTA with Australia without serious consideration.

Whether the Japanese Government will enter into these negotiations is still unclear, however, it is inevitable that should negotiations begin, the use of technical support mechanisms to avoid opening Japan’s domestic market will not prove acceptable to Australia. Japan’s ability to implement domestic structural reform policies through more comprehensive and rapid trade liberalization will then be put to the test.

Should high customs duties be removed on grain, meats, and other products in an FTA relationship with Australia, other nations will be interested in gaining the same benefits as well.

In addition, Australia is also known for its strong service sector. This includes businesses such as the media group managed by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, while Japan’s services – among them, telecommunications, broadcasting, transportation, and construction – lack competitiveness as they have not been exposed to same degree of international competition. A Japan-Australia FTA, therefore, may be expected to also impact Japan’s service sector.

Additionally, there is growing sentiment in Japan for the need to further diversify its trade, so it is not so reliant on Asian markets. An FTA with Australia, would therefore constitute a major additional step toward a new stage in Japanese trade policy and a valuable opportunity to improve competitiveness and transparency within its economy.

It might be fair to say the development of a Japan-Australia FTA/EPA could pave the way to a future Japan-US FTA/EPA. One interesting point to note is Thomas Schieffer, the new U.S. Ambassador to Japan, was the U.S. Ambassador to Australia. During his tenure there, the U.S.-Australia FTA was negotiated. As a result, he might also be expected to push for a Japan-U.S. FTA.

In any case, with negotiations of an ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA and a China-Australia FTA already underway, building an FTA relationship with Australia is essential if Japan is to maintain its role as a leader in developing an FTA structure in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite Obstacles, There is Substantial Reason for Optimism

Further progress in moving Japan toward the negotiating stage with Australia was achieved last month during talks between Foreign Minister Downer and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Melbourne Australia’s “The Age” newspaper reported on these talks, noting Mr Downer view that he had received "positive signs" about a free trade agreement with Japan.

In this article, Mr. Downer commented "We already have free trade agreements with other countries in the region and the United States and we thought it would make good sense for there to be a feasibility study done into a free trade agreement with Japan and he agreed with me." As a result, The Age went on to state “The stage is now set for Prime Minister John Howard and Mr. Koizumi to announce the feasibility study next month during a visit by Mr. Howard to Tokyo.”

Irrespective of any progress with Australia -- it is clear, as stated in another article by Naoko Munakata that, “Japan has its own circumstances pressing for quick actions (in implementing Free Trade Agreements). As China and other Asian neighbors continue their economic development to compete with Japan in many more sectors, Japan has little time left to upgrade its economic structure and regain its vitality.



Data, statistics and the reference materials presented within this newsletter have been compiled by JETRO from publicly-released media and research accounts. Although these statements are believed to be reliable, JETRO does not guarantee their accuracy, and any such information should be checked independently by the reader before they are used to make any business or investment decision.

  For additional information on economic and financial trends in Japan, please contact Akihiro Tada, Executive Director of JETRO NY at Tel: 212-997-0416, Fax: 212-997-0464, E-mail: 

Focus: Economic Recovery
Focus: Privatization
Focus: Economic Recovery
Focus: Entrepreneurship
Focus: Consumer Demand

Focus: Asia
Focus: Gross National Cool
Focus: Regional Development
Focus: New Policy Challenges
Focus: Investment Japan IV
Focus: Investment Japan III
Focus: Biotechnology
Focus: Investment Japan II
Focus: Investment Japan
Focus: Foreign Direct Investment
Focus: Mergers & Acquisitions
Focus: Entrepeneurship
Focus: Economic Revitalization 
Focus: Industrial Revitalization 
Focus: Foreign Investment
Focus: Bush Visit
Focus: Koizumi Visit
Focus: Economic Rebirth
Focus: Hiranuma Plan
Focus: Foreign Direct Investment
Focus: Emergency Economic Package
Focus: Action Plan

Focus: Economic Reform
Focus: Okinawa Summit
Focus: Small Business Development
Focus: New Enterprise Development
Focus: Industrial Revitalization
Focus: Economic Recovery 4

Focus: Steel

Focus: Economic Recovery 3

Focus: Economic Recovery 2
Focus: Economic Recovery

Focus is published and disseminated by JETRO New York in coordination with KWR International, Inc. JETRO New York is registered as an agent of the Japan External Trade Organization, Tokyo, Japan and KWR International, Inc. is registered on behalf of JETRO New York. This material is filed with the Department of Justice where the required registration statement is available for public viewing.