Japan’s reforming farm minister leads cultivating new markets

TOKYO, Aug. 4 ― One year after becoming Japan’s agriculture minister, Ken Saito has led a move to cultivate new markets overseas for Japanese farm products.

“The past year has been very exciting to me,” Saito said at a Aug. 3 press conference, as he reflected the first year as the agriculture minister.

Indeed, he focused on boosting Japanese farm exports for much of the past year, as he stressed the country faces a declining population.

Japanese food export value in the first five months of 2018 rose 15% from the same period a year earlier. If they can keep this pace, Japan will likely meet its target of 1 trillion yen in agricultural exports in 2019.

Yet, farming reforms to date, initiated by the Shinzo Abe administration to transform agriculture into a growth industry, still have long ways to go, observers say.

The reforms include weakening the political power of the agricultural cooperatives (JA group) and phasing out the gentan system, which was originally designed to shield rice farmers from short-term fluctuations in prices by paying them each year in compensation for lost income.

Farmers are strongly concerned about the Abe administration’s further opening of the agricultural market. The agriculture minister needs to gain confidence from them, observers say.

Uncertainty still reigns the farmers strongly as Japan and the U.S. have begun new “free, fair and reciprocal (FFR)” trade talks. The Trump administration wants the talks to yield a free trade agreement between the two, since it withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The farmers fear U.S. demands to further access to the Japanese agricultural market, which may go beyond the concessions Japan made as part of the TPP.

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