Japan lawmakers, stakeholders scramble to gather info on TPP round

Japanese lawmakers, and business and agricultural lobby groups scrambled to gather information on the progress of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks in Malaysia on Wednesday, a day after Japan joined the negotiating table.

On the sidelines of the 18th round of the TPP talks that began July 15 in Kota Kinabalu, Koya Nishikawa, chief of the TPP team of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and other lawmakers met with U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials to exchange views on the negotiations and convey Japan's intent to protect its agricultural sector.

"We asked for their understanding on the issue of agriculture on which we are divided," Nishikawa said after the meeting.

While Japan is seeking to exempt some farm products from tariff elimination, Nishikawa said officials of the U.S. lobby group told him Japan may not require such exceptions if it is given a long period of time to phase out tariffs.

"I told them we cannot do such a thing at this point and asked for their understanding regarding (farm product) exceptions," he said.

The LDP has adopted a resolution demanding that the Japanese government protect key farm products -- rice, wheat, beef, pork, dairy products and sugar -- by retaining tariffs on imports, amid strong domestic concern that an influx of cheap imports could devastate the country's agricultural sector.

Catherine Mellor, a director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters after the meeting her organization's position is that "sensitive issues must be addressed, but there are flexible ways to do that."

"We certainly have similar sensitivities in the United States, but overall, the U.S. supports the TPP agreement," she said.

Japanese stakeholders have also been attempting to hold talks with their counterparts in the Malaysian resort, while attending a closed stakeholder briefing session held by the Japanese government Wednesday.

"There is a very strict nondisclosure agreement, so we are worried about whether the negotiations are really heading in the way that we hope for," said Hidehiro Okayama, general manager of economic affairs at the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry after the briefing.

"We have to strengthen our information gathering efforts," he said, while adding no crucial information on the negotiations was conveyed by other stakeholders during the government's briefing session.

A senior official of Japan Swine Farm Business Cooperation said, "We tried to gather information from industrial lobby groups of other countries at this round, but everyone has already left."

The official stakeholder forum and briefing was held on Saturday, before Japan became a member of the TPP negotiations, and Japanese stakeholders could not attend the sessions.