If Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan really wants to effect change and open up Japan's markets he’ll have a tumultuous tussle on his hands with the nation's agricultural cooperatives (JA), and indeed, members of his own party. This is a fight that could make or break Kan's premiership, which might require him to act as boldly as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did in his drive to reform the nation's postal service.
Kan's vision of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pan-Pacific free trade pact that the likes of the United States and Australia are considering joining, faces strong resistance from the nation's local assemblies. A Kyodo News tally of support for the TPP among the nation's 66 local assemblies (prefectural and major ordinance-designated city assemblies) released Sunday showed that 46 assembles had adopted statements indicating their opposition to the initiative.
The main beefs with the TPP are concerns about an influx of cheap agricultural imports and Kan's high-handedness in announcing he wants to join the pact without building a national consensus.
I've argued here before that membership of the TPP is essential to ensure Japan's future prosperity and prevent it from falling behind nations such as South Korea (which has already signed pacts with the United States and the European Union, and in doing so has taken the agricultural bull by the horns).
But the JA group has parked a huge tractor in Kan's way. It has a membership of 9.57 million people, and has recently said it plans to get 10 million people to sign a petition against Japan joining the TPP. JA carries huge weight in Japan's rural areas (where votes wrongly carry more clout than in urban areas). According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, it has more than 200,000 employees, financial businesses worth more than 80 trillion yen, and holds insurance policy contracts worth 330 trillion yen. In other words, it holds massive sway over the lives of millions of people in the provinces.
Time is also against Kan, with the United States reportedly looking to tie up talks by November. This only gives Kan a few months to set the free trade ball in motion and draw up plans to make the TPP medicine go down more smoothly for the nation’s farmers.
Kan's own ruling Democratic Party of Japan is also split on whether to proceed with negotiations to join the pact, with opposition coming mainly from lawmakers in rural constituencies who fear they'll be booted out of office if the government continues along its current course.
So Kan has to win over both foes in energized agricultural cooperatives as well as members of his own party (which is split on this issue like it is several others, not least over support for party heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa).
When Koizumi came to power in 2001, he set about dismantling the nation's gargantuan postal service. Whatever Koizumi's reasons were for postal reform, he was determined not to let anything stop him in his tracks. After postal privatization bills failed to make it into law in 2005, he called a snap general election and fired 'rebel' Liberal Democratic Party members who opposed the bill. Voters were impressed by Koizumi's decisive action and handed the LDP a landslip election victory—the party's biggest in nearly 20 years. Koizumi’s augmented majority in the lower house helped him pass the reforms.
Six years on, and Kan's position can be compared with that of his 'maverick' predecessor. It’s not clear yet whether he has a similar stomach to fight for his convictions. But he should bear in mind that recent history has shown that the public will get behind a decisive leader, even if they don't necessarily agree with his policies.