Tokyo — Giving in to American pressure to remove import quotas on agricultural products would be tantamount to ''political suicide.''
Many members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) believe this. And the powerful farmers' lobby has begun a campaign to ensure the politicians don't forget.
The United States is already the main supplier of basic foodstuffs, but it wants to export more to help cut the Grand Canyon-size gap in its trade with Japan.
Although members of the Tokyo government are showing willingness to open Japanese markets, they may have a hard time convincing the entire government.
The LDP has remained in power for 30 years largely because of the farm-bloc vote. At least 60 percent of its parliamentary members represent rural districts.
These include many of the party figures who are struggling to be next in line for the premiership.
Even if not directly involved, these men need wide-ranging factional support to promote their political ambitions - which inevitably means satisfying the rural lobby.
Of 27 residual import quota items, 22 are on agricultural products. Washington wants to see them all scrapped; particularly the restrictions on beef , oranges and other citrus fruits, and tobacco.
The Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry is opposed. Its current head, Kichiro Tazawa, comes from an LDP stronghold in Aomori, northern Honshu, one of the country's most important farming and fishing areas. His wife manages a large farm there.
Other key members of the Cabinet and LDP hierarchy face an equal need to heed the farmers.
Heading the list is Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, who has a fishing background and represents an important cattle-raising and farming constituency.
International Trade and Industry Minister Shintaro Abe and chief Cabinet secretary Kiichi Miyazawa -- both seen as possible future prime ministers -- represent a major citrus fruit-growing area.
Ichiro Nakagawa, director general of the Science and Technology agency, upholds the interests of the beef and dairy industry on Hokkaido. Finance Minister Michio Watanabe is dependent on votes from the country's main tomato-growing area.
The Central Association of Agricultural Cooperatives (Zenchu) has issued a warning to men like these that succumbing to American pressure for import liberalization ''would have a devastating affect on individual farmers and rock the very foundations of Japanese agriculture.''
Japanese beef-eaters now pay a high price for the inefficient, uneconomic nature of domestic cattle breeding and dairy farming. But Zenchu says Japanese farmers cannot possibly compete with their US and Australian counterparts, who have the benefits of ''wide open spaces.''
Orange growers are also at a disadvantage. They are unable to lower costs through large-scale mechanization, since at least half the crop is grown in mountainous areas.
The United States has only a 1.4 percent share of the Japanese tobacco market. Government officials say removal of import restraints would seriously hurt some 104,000 domestic tobacco farmers, whose product costs twice as much as American tobacco and falls far behind in quality.
Agricultural Ministry officials constantly trot out the argument that removal of import quotas would not necessarily help the US. Instead, it could mean a flood of cheap Australian beef, and Brazilian and Israeli oranges.
Increased beef imports, they warn, would also mean less demand for animal feedstuffs, which would cut heavily into purchases of American grain.
Fruit importers also aren't keen on trade liberalization. They enjoy high profit margins, estimated at 40 percent on Florida oranges.
Everywhere the government looks for ways to meet American demands, political problems loom. Trade Minister Abe, for example, reportedly would like to liberalize leather-goods imports to please both the US and Europe.
But the local leather industry is in deep financial trouble, and, consisting almost entirely of small firms, is stoutly resisting attempts to remove its protective shield.
An extremely sensitive social issue is involved. Many leather workers are members of the ''burakumin'' (similar to India's ''untouchables''), who are still discriminated against, even though this is illegal. Should they lose their jobs because of cheaper imports, it is highly unlikely they would find work elsewhere.
In their campaign for trade liberalization, the Americans have found an unlikely ally in former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.
Tanaka comes from a rice-producing area that is not directly involved in the current controversy. But the former prime minister, now on trial for alleged involvement in the Lockheed aircraft bribes scandal, has been volubly harrassing his colleagues to accept the US demands.