A recent article by the Wall Street Journal investigates Japan’s inability to sign off on potentially lucrative FTAs. The main reason? Farmers.
The author of the article points to the disproportionate amount of power farmers and special interests groups in Japan wield in government and notes that without political reform, the Japanese economy will continue its slow but gradual decline.
The “why” of it all is simple: Japan’s political system today has much in common with that of 18th century Britain. Both cases are characterized by the underrepresentation of urban areas, and too much power being given to rural constituencies. In Japan’s case, only 38% of the seats in its upper house are given to its six most urban prefectures. Any attempt to pass an FTA would (in all likelihood) be blocked by the farmers’ veto power despite its bicameral legislature.
Cross-ministry negotiations also takes place before any action can be taken. As it stands to take a loss, the Agriculture Ministry can simply veto the approval of the FTA regardless of the benefits it would bring to other sectors of the Japanese economy.
Japan must look back to examples in history in their attempt to find a solution to the problem.
The first examples that come to mind are 18th century Britain and post-Revolutionary America. Following its union with Ireland in 1801 and faced with a similar situation, Britain (now the United Kingdom) passed the Reform Act in 1832 with the help of enormous public pressure and a lot of violence. The result was a more balanced system that more accurately represented the will of the people.
Similarly, post-Revolutionary America was ruled by state governments and minority interests, which left the weak federal government with little to no power to make lucrative trade agreements with former parent Britain. After drafting the Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and ratifying it the following year, however, the federal government managed to achieve its goals through the Connecticut Compromise and through the separation of powers.
Fast forward to present day Japan, and you’ll see that Japan is faced with a similar problem. In both of the cases above, political reform was the only means by which they were able to achieve progress. What Japan needs to do now is the exact same. Current negotiations within government are futile without overhauling its political system altogether. The country needs more accurate political representation of its urban areas (and consequently, the majority of the population), who stand to benefit the most from any major free trade agreement. What the Agriculture Ministry and many Japanese farmers have to realize is the disservice that they are doing in indirectly preventing the recovery of the Japanese economy from its current stagnation.
One has to realize, however, that it’s a two way street. Nothing can be done without the will and assent of the people. Like 18th century Britain, the majority must make a stand. It shouldn’t be a question of if, but rather how the Japanese can voice their support for the TPP. Without standing up for something that you would profit from, how can your voices be heard over the current megaphone of minority rule?
Japan is at an important turning point culturally, politically and economically. Political reform for the sake of achieving free trade would be the first step in the right direction.
Photo Credit: JATAWTF / Wikimedia