JA-Zenchu and the JA Group until 2013

JA-Zenchu, representing the JA Group, is without doubt the most powerful protectionist lobby group in Japan’s trade policymaking. Organizationally, the JA Group has a dominating presence in rural communities. The JA Group penetrates deeply into rural communities through cooperatives at the municipal, prefectural, and national levels. Nearly all farmers and a large number of rural residents are regular or associate members of the JA Group through their local cooperatives. In 2017, the JA Group had 4.3 million regular members and 6.2 million associate members (JA-Zenchu 2019). In terms of functions, the JA Group provides a comprehensive range of services that include marketing and purchasing of agricultural products, “financial, management, service, technical, social, educational, advisory, welfare, social and cultural activities relating to agriculture and the farmers’ lives as well as those of non-farmers” (Mulgan 2000, 51). In other words, the JA Group services nearly all needs of the rural residents in Japan. Given its extensive and intensive presence in rural communities, the JA Group is in a strategic position to act as a key political actor in rural communities.

As the peak association of the JA Group, JA-Zenchu’s dominant position in agricultural policymaking (including domestic and trade issues) has a legal and political basis. Legally, JA-Zenchu is the ‘“sole and supreme national body that unifies the intentions, represents the interests and determines the directions of the whole [cooperative] movement’” (Mulgan 2000, 63). The official role of the JA-Zenchu is to represent the political interests of farmers, which enabled it to become a core actor shaping agricultural policies. Due to its legal status, JA-Zenchu also has the authority to audit local cooperatives and thus exert influence over local cooperatives (ibid., 61). Politically, JA-Zenchu has served as a vote mobilizer for the dominant LDP throughout the post-World War II period. LDP rural politicians have largely benefited from JA-Zenchu’s organizational and financial support during election times.The JA-Zenchu has also proactively recommended candidates during election times, successfully helping candidates who are favorable to the J A Group get elected to the Diet. In return, the LDP has rewarded JA-Zenchu and rural voters with favorable agricultural policies such as subsidies and protection (Mulgan 2000,380-473).

Although the share of rural voters have dropped significantly over the years, it is no secret among Japan’s major parties that rural votes help win elections. And gaining the support ofJA Zenchu is an effective way to gain rural votes. For example, Scheiner (2006) notes that strong LDP support in rural districts have enabled the LDP to reign as ruling party for more than half a century despite declining popularity among urban voters. In fact, the LDP lost its position as ruling party in 2009 when rural votes swung to the Democratic Party of Japan (Yoshimatsu 2015a). Mulgan (2013) observes that rural voters punished the LDP for their inability to protect Japan’s agricultural market. In the 2012 lower house election, rural votes swung back to the LDP, playing a role in the LDP’s return to government.

Given its organizational strength and electoral clout, the JA Zenchu has played a critical role in shaping Japan’s FTAs prior to 2013. JA-Zenchu’s initial position was that agricultural liberalizations should be “exclusively” discussed in the WTO, not in FTAs (Solis 2010, 225). Agricultural liberalization first became a major issue during Japans FTA negotiation with Mexico. The Mexican government hoped to increase pork and citrus exports to Japan since these two products made up about 12 percent of Mexico’s exports to Japan. However, from the very beginning, JA-Zenchu had extracted a concession from MAFF to prevent further market opening (Manger 2009, ‘Chapter 5’). Manger (2009) notes that “MAFF officials repeatedly stated that they could not compromise on the issue of pork, even at the risk of failure of the negotiations with Mexico” (ibid.). In addition to pressuring MAFF officials,JA-Zenchu staged public campaigns, sit-ins in front of government buildings, and pressured key LDP politicians to align with farm interests. Eventually, JA-Zenchu accepted some degree of agricultural liberalization, albeit very moderate. JA-Zenchu succeeded in limiting tariff concessions to only 40 percent of Mexico’s agricultural exports to Japan and maintaining quotas on citrus and pork. Tariffs on pork were set at 4.3 percent “only if sold at the equivalent of the price demanded by Japanese farmers”. Tariffs for the remaining pork was set at a high 49 percent (ibid.).

Since the Japan-Mexico FTA,JA-Zenchu’s position has been to exclude sensitive agricultural products—specifically, rice, barley and wheat, sugar, dairy, and beef and pork—from FTA negotiations (Manger 2009,‘Chapter 7’; Solis 2010,226). For example japan’s FTA negotiation with Thailand was equally contentious as the Thai government sought to export agricultural goods such as rice, sugar, and flour to Japan. JA-Zenchu staunchly opposed agricultural liberalization, even sending representatives to Bangkok to strongly impress the need of excluding rice from the FTA negotiations (ibid.). Eventually, Ja-Zenchu succeeded in removing rice from the negotiation table during the Japan-Thailand FTA negotiation.

The exclusion of sensitive agricultural products from FTAs imply that a large portion of Japan’s agricultural items would be excluded from tariff concessions. In factjapan’s FTAs prior to 2013 have excluded on average about 40 percent of agricultural items from tariff concessions (Kim 2009,5).Trade partners that do not have substantial agricultural exports, especially exports in sensitive agricultural products, have had a much easier time negotiating FTAs with Japan. An example is Malaysia, which did not have sensitive agricultural exports to Japan and quickly agreed to exclude rice, wheat, several dairy products, beef, and pork from the FTA negotiation. The Japan-Malaysia FTA concluded with ease, the negotiation taking a little more than 1 year from start to end (Manger 2009,‘Chapter 7’).

On the other hand, however, JA-Zenchu’s position has effectively prevented FTAs with major agricultural exporting countries such as Australia. Even without an FTA Japan already imported large amounts of agricultural products from Australia. Following the U.S., the EU, and China, Australia was Japan’s fourth largest supplier of agriculture and food imports in 2006. In particular, Australia’s major agricultural exports to Japan were sensitive items. Australia supplied “half of its [Japan’s] beef needs, one third of its cheese requirements and about one fifth of its wheat and sugar consumption” in 2006 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2006). As a result, when the government launched FTA negotiations with Australia in 2007, JA-Zenchu responded with staunch opposition, organizing farmer’s protests in downtown Tokyo (Solis 2010, 226). Solis (2010) insinuates that farm displeasure with the launching of the Japan-Australia FTA played a role in the LDP’s 2007 upper house election defeat (ibid.). Ultimately, it would take another 7 years for the Japanese government to conclude the Japan-Australia FTA.

Keidanren and JA-Zenchu since 2013

The strengthening domestic trade governance of Japan since 2013 has had opposite effects in the ability of Keidanren and JA-Zenchu to shape FTA policies. Keidanren now works in an FTA policymaking environment that is biased in favor of greater trade liberalization and high-level FTAs. In 2014, a Keidanren poll conducted among member companies revealed that Japanese businesses perceived stalled TPP negotiations as a “roadblock” to overseas expansions (Nikkei Asian Review 2014a). After the withdrawal of the U.S. from the TPP, Keidanren issued a statement urging the 11 remaining countries in the TPP to “move forward to conclude theTPP” and “minimize changes to the original agreement” (Keidanren 2017). Keidanren has also used its “funding power” and “strategic position of business in the economy” to directly communicate with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to lobby on behalf of its trade agenda (Mulgan 2015,‘Interest Group Political Strategies’).

In contrast, the FTA policymaking environment has turned relatively more hostile toward JA-Zenchu. When Japan joined the TPP negotiations in 2013, JA-Zenchu put up a strong fight. JA-Zenchu organized an anti-TPP rally that brought together over 4,000 participants and 184 Diet members (The Japan Times 2013). The President of JA-Zenchu, Akira Banzai even threatened to withdraw support if Prime Minister Abe’s administration entered the TPP negotiations (Yoshimatsu 2015b, 1152). This was no small threat as the farm lobby, led by JA-Zenchu, has been a powerful voter base for the LDP. When Japan first joined the TPP negotiations in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia on July 2013, officials ofJA-Zenchu were present to “‘monitor’ the government’s negotiations” (Asahi Shimbun 2013). A Japanese lawmaker present at the negotiations further commented that “the monitoring activities were necessary to pressure the government” (ibid.).JA-Zenchu continued to organize anti-TPP rallies throughout Japans TPP negotiations and also clearly reminded LDP politicians (and Prime Minister Abe) of JA-Zenchu’s support of the LDP during its successful 2012 lower house elections (Nikkei Asian Review 2014b). JA-Zenchu also engaged in other anti-TPP campaigns such as collecting 11 million signatures for an anti-TPP petition, using media outlets to spread anti-TPP messages, and seeking support of Diet members with agricultural ties (Mulgan 2015,‘Interest Group Political Strategies’).

Despite these efforts, however, JA-Zenchu was not able to overcome the new institutional structure of Japan’s FTA policymaking under Prime Minister Abe. The strengthened cohesion of Japan’s domestic trade governance limited JA-Zenchu’s ability to veto the FTA policymaking process. JA-Zenchu’s reform in 2015 also seemed to symbolize the political demise of the farm lobby group (see Chapter 4). As of yet, the reform has not significantly reduced the political influence ofJA-Zenchu. Although JA-Zenchu is now a general incorporated association, prefectural unions that comprise the membership of JA-Zenchu still retain their cooperative status. And prefectural unions collect member ship fees from their local cooperatives, which will ultimately channel into JA-Zenchu. Moreover, membership fees collected at the local cooperative level are unlikely to reduce unless the government prevents local cooperatives from accepting associate members, who are part-time farmers that do not depend on farming for their livelihood (Yamashita 2015). In the long run, however, the reform ofJA-Zenchu signifies a break in the key actors that have dominated agricultural policymaking. The fact that JA-Zenchu could not stop the reform indicates that their interests are not entirely aligned with those of MAFF and LDP rural politicians.Yamashita (2015) notes that JA “seems to be pitted in an all-out confrontation with MAFF, which it has sharply criticized for ‘betraying’ it on the reform issue”. Furthermore, he observes that “cracks have appeared in the strong and solid ties binding MAFF, the JA |JA-Zenchu|, and the legislators” (ibid.).The weakening relations among JA-Zenchu, MAFF, and LDP rural politicians portend the further weakening of the farm lobby group in the future.

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