Japan made its belated debut as the 12th member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations Tuesday in Malaysia after a four-month wait since announcing its intention to join the talks on creating one of the world's largest free trade areas.
With the United States, the leading TPP economy, completing its domestic procedures to approve Tokyo's participation, Japan was welcomed into the 18th round of talks already under way since July 15 in the Malaysian resort of Kota Kinabalu, according to Japanese officials.
"We received a warm welcome from the negotiators of the 11 countries," said Japan's deputy chief negotiator Hiroshi Oe after the day's sessions ended.
Oe indicated the first day's chief negotiator session was largely procedural, with the 11 other countries familiarizing Japan with the functions of the chief negotiator session overlooking working group sessions and the agreement not to disclose the content of negotiations.
A working group on the environment, the first group joined by a Japanese negotiator, and another on intellectual property reported to the chief negotiators during the session, he said.
With the first day over and only two more days left in the round, Japan's chief negotiator Koji Tsuruoka and his team will seek to fully utilize the remaining time to set out the country's position.
"We will unite as one and do our best to realize the national interest," Tsuruoka said. Japanese negotiators and lawmakers gathered in the morning before Japan joined the negotiating table.
"We aim to achieve results that will lead to the revival of the Japanese economy," he added.
TPP negotiations comprise 21 working groups on 29 chapters, including market access covering tariff elimination, which has been the key topic of interest for Japan.
Japan gained access to the texts of the TPP negotiations, believed to run to thousands of pages, after its official admission.
"We've come a long way, but the negotiations enter the key stage from now," said TPP minister Akira Amari, who doubles as economic and fiscal policy minister, in Tokyo.
"We must gain access to all the information as soon as possible so that we can be on a level playing field with the other negotiating teams," he said.
While Japan is seeking to eliminate trade barriers to boost exports of cars and other manufactured goods, its government has also pledged to protect its sensitive farm products, namely rice, wheat, beef, pork, dairy products and sugar, by retaining the tariffs it imposes on imports.
The working group on market access, however, already finished its negotiations for the round on Friday, and Japanese negotiators only took part in the working group sessions on intellectual property, government procurement, rules of origin, environment, and legal and institutional issues, according to Japanese officials.
As the talks on intellectual property for the current round ended Tuesday, Japan will be devoting its time to negotiations on the four remaining areas, they said.
The TPP members have decided to spend Wednesday afternoon in addition to the last day Thursday to briefing Japan on the current status of the negotiations and providing background information on accord texts, fanning hopes among Japanese officials that its negotiators can fully present the country's positions.
Koya Nishimura, chief of the TPP team at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Japan's entry came in time for tariff negotiations.
"TPP countries have not yet made their requests and offers for the levels of tariffs on major goods, and the negotiations will become full-fledged from the next round of talks," he said.
Nishimura added Japan must join hands with other countries on issues it can negotiate together on as TPP countries are likely to be divided into groups depending on the interests they are going to defend.
Some TPP members have shown understanding regarding Japan's intention to protect its agricultural sector, with a Vietnamese TPP official saying member states "should cooperate to explore solutions for sensitive sectors that member countries think should be protected."
The addition of Japan significantly raises the scale of the envisioned pact. With Japan, TPP countries account for nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product and about a third of total world trade, at a time when China, which is not a TPP member, is increasing its global presence.
As the talks have already entered the fourth year, TPP countries are aiming to reach a basic agreement in October and conclude a deal by the end of the year. The next round is being arranged for late August in Brunei.
Despite the approaching target date, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated there is still time for Japan to negotiate.
"I think it is not yet too late to pursue the best path for serving the national interest," Suga said in Tokyo.
Aside from Japan, the TPP members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.