WASHINGTON, April 29, 2015 – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in an historic address to a joint meeting of Congress, assured lawmakers he was ready to remove protections for his country’s farmers and was close to finalizing a trade deal with the United States.
The U.S. demand that Japan end its stiff tariffs on rice and other agricultural commodities is one of the major hangups to concluding the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

“The goal is near,” Abe said of the U.S.-Japan talks, speaking in halting English. “Let us bring the TPP (to) successful conclusion through our joint leadership.”

Abe didn’t talk at all about the specifics of the negotiations, and White House officials said ahead of his visit that the negotiations wouldn’t be finished this week.

But Abe told the lawmakers he had reversed the thinking he had 20 years ago when he joined a farmer rally to protest lowering protections to Japanese agriculture.

“I was much younger and like a ball of fire and opposed to opening Japan’s agricultural market,” he said.

Since then, Japanese agriculture “has gone into decline” with the average age of farmers now 66, he said. “In order for it to survive,” Japanese agriculture “has to change now.”

He said Japan was pursuing “sweeping reform” to its farm policy, which is one of the most lucrative for producers in the world. More than 45 percent of the value of Japan’s agricultural production comes from trade barriers or subsidies

Commodities such as rice and dairy products are protected through quotes and prohibitively high tariffs, and there are duties on beef, vegetable oil and oranges. Pork is protected through a minimum import price, or “gate price.”

Earlier the year, Abe moved to overhaul the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, a giant entity that controls distribution of farm commodities.   

After Abe’s speech, Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said he senses “momentum” in the TPP negotiations.  “I see him in a good position to get some reforms done. It’s vital to the success of the TPP. “

Abe’s speech came as the House and Senate are preparing to debate fast-track bills that would ensure that the TPP agreement would receive an up-or-down vote in Congress with no chance of amendment. The legislation could be on the Senate floor as early as next week.

The administration said the legislation is critical to getting Japan and Canada to make their final concessions in the TPP talks. The United States is demanding that Canada remove barriers on dairy and poultry products.

Abe also sought to make a case to the lawmakers for the TPP, which he said was important both for security of the two nations as well as to increase economic growth. “We must take the lead to build a market, pure dynamic, sustainable, and (that) is also free from the … arbitrary intentions of any nation,” he said.

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Opponents of the fast-track legislation seized on the lack of a U.S.-Japan deal this week as evidence that it was premature for Congress to pass the measure.

“The failure to reach a final accord during Prime Minister Abe's visit is another reminder about the key sticking points that remain before TPP can be finished - and why ‘fast tracking’ this underlying agreement before it's finished and we can see the text is a bad idea,” according to a statement by the Coalition to Stop Fast Track, which is backed by labor unions and environmental groups.