Abe vows to reform farming industry

Abe vows to reform farming industry
A farmer working in his field in Tokyo. Rules for Japan’s farm sector have been dubbed “rock hard” because of farmers’ resistance to change.

PRIME Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to turn Japan's highly protected farm sector into a growth industry as part of reforms to revive the economy in a policy speech marking the start of his third year at the helm.

He also reiterated his government's resolve not to give in to terrorism, after two Japanese hostages were killed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, and hinted at stronger measures to protect Japanese nationals overseas.

In a speech delayed because of the hostage crisis, Mr Abe outlined a range of measures, from the revitalisation of local economies to empowering women, and pledged to achieve "the biggest-ever reforms in post-war Japan".

Emboldened by his party's landslide victory in last December's snap elections, he repeated the word "kaikaku" (which means reform in Japanese) 36 times.

Mr Abe devoted a major portion of his speech to agricultural reform, which he pointed out was being undertaken for the first time in 60 years.

Rules governing Japan's farm sector have been dubbed "rock hard" because they long defied attempts to overhaul them.

The smashing of these regulations has been touted as a centrepiece of Mr Abe's growth strategies.

Last week, the government succeeded in coaxing officials of the Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, or JA-Zenchu, to agree to changes that would strip the organisation of powers to audit and supervise regional cooperatives across the country.

Mr Abe says the reform will help increase farmers' incomes and open up overseas markets to enterprising farmers.

But Mr Abe is believed to be seeking to weaken the powers of JA-Zenchu, which is firmly opposed to the liberalisation of the farming industry that is being pursued in Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks with the United States.

Japanese farmers, already ageing and declining in numbers, fear stiff competition from cheap imports if the TPP is approved.

Mr Abe's reforms do not show how farmers can become more competitive.

In his speech, Mr Abe also claimed to have boosted employment and wages in the past two years through his Abenomics growth policies.

But in a recent survey by the Japan News Network, 49 per cent of respondents gave the thumbs down to Abenomics and 86 per cent did not feel the economy had improved.

Referring to threats by ISIS against Japan, he vowed to protect the Japanese at home and abroad and to continue providing humanitarian aid as Japan's contribution to the global war on terrorism.

Amid debate that Japan needs to be able to send troops overseas to evacuate its own nationals when necessary, Mr Abe hinted he may do just that.

"We aim to put into place a legal framework that will enable the government to seamlessly tackle all possible contingencies," he said in his speech.

The government is due to amend laws later this year to enable the Self Defence Force to go to the aid of a friendly country under attack, a move that critics say could pave the way for troops to be deployed overseas.

wengkin@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 13, 2015.
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