Japan Reluctant To Put Rice On Trade Table


`WHY import rice?'' states a billboard on a Japanese farm. ``Do we have American bodies?'' This type of public pitch for trade protectionism is one reason why Japan is taking a low-key, defensive posture in the Uruguay Round negotiations, especially on the politically explosive issue of opening its $25 billion rice market.

Yet Japan, as one of the world's most successful exporters, would receive huge benefits if the Uruguay Round is successful, concedes the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Ryohei Murata.

Japan also may have the most to lose if the round fails. This could trigger new trade protectionism and possibly lock Japan out of emerging trading blocs in Europe and the Americas.

Making many concessions in the Geneva talks, however, such as lifting of the import ban on cheaper foreign rice, is difficult for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP remains stuck in a leadership crisis, say most analysts, unable to risk bold moves.

``Japan, which depends most heavily on trade, may be the most concerned about protecting itself,'' says Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama, an LDP politician. The LDP risks being voted out of power if it breaks a promise to protect rice farmers, even though consumers pay five to six times the world price for Japanese rice.

Washington, in need of ammunition against the European Community's pro-farmer stance, tried to coax Japan into putting the rice policy on the table and thus display a leadership position at GATT.

Many top Japanese politicians did courageously switch their public views, citing the possibility that the US would use its Super 301 provision against the Japanese rice market next year. Most, however, say Japan needs to protect rice farms for ``food security.'' Big business is pushing for an end to the import ban.

Even as it stone-walls on rice to the last minute, Japan nonetheless is most eager that a new GATT pact curb an upsurge of antidumping cases. Japan and other Asian exporters say the West often uses existing antidumping measures to actually protect its industries, while claiming imports are sold at below market prices. So wide are the differences on the issue that GATT officials could not produce even a working text on antidumping for the final talks, say Japanese officials.

The Uruguay Round, under way for four years, has already involved more than 250 formal meetings of negotiating bodies and the tabling of over 1,000 negotiating proposals and working papers.

Japan also hopes a new GATT pact would curb ``voluntary restraint agreements,'' under which a country agrees to limit the sale of an export item to another country. Car exports to the US have been restrained by such an agreement since 1981 under US pressure to protest its carmakers.

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