TOKYO—Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday that his country will take a seat at the negotiation table of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations, a move that may pit him against powerful farm lobbies ahead of upper house elections.
“This is our last chance to join the TPP and take part in the rule-making,” Mr. Abe told reporters Friday at a news conference to mark his decision to join the talks. “For Japan to remain inward-looking means we are giving up on the possibility of growth,” he said, reminding the public that the countries in the TPP pact account for one-third of the world’s economy.
Mr. Abe emphasized the now-or-never timing of Japan’s joining the rule-making process, while still maintaining the nation is far from deciding on whether to take part in the trade circle.
Friday’s announcement comes after weeks of high tension within Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, a pro-business conservative party with strong ties to farm associations that have significant influence over the key rural vote.
A number of produce sectors heavily protected by import tariffs have protested joining the TPP talks, which also include agricultural giants like Canada and Australia. With steep tariffs that effectively prevent all foreign competition, rice farmers have been particularly vocal.
“The prime minister’s announcement is utterly unacceptable and we with farmers of Japan protest with indignation,” the powerful Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, better known as JA, said.
Rural prefectures of Kochi and Shimane lodged complaints earlier Friday, Kyodo News reported, warning the dangers the TPP poses to their already dwindling farm population.
Mr. Abe had been setting the stage for Friday’s announcement since beating the Democratic Party of Japan by a landslide in lower house elections in December, assuring voters that he would automatically be against joining the TPP if it required “prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate tariffs.”
The premier’s cautious wording and the fact that he made little specific mention of the sectors that would benefit from Japan joining the TPP suggest he is extremely mindful of next summer’s upper house elections. While Mr. Abe’s popularity has remained strong in the polls since taking office, alienating rural voters could block his party from gaining control of both houses of parliament, which would hobble the LDP’s ability to carry out its mandate.
Last month after his visit with U.S. President Barack Obama, Mr. Abe confirmed that such requirements didn’t exist, rejecting TPP critics who say that taking part in the negotiations would be the beginning of the end of Japanese agriculture.
“I promise to protect our farm and produce,” Mr. Abe reassured the public adding, “We must be on the offensive with our agriculture—this is a chance, not a crunch.” Falling short of saying that Japan is willing to leave the trade pact if it can’t get tariff exclusions, Mr. Abe repeated that he will not forsake Japan’s farmers.
The Japanese government estimates the TPP, presuming all tariffs are scrapped, could add ¥3.2 trillion ($33.5 billion) to the economy, which is 0.66 percentage point of the real gross domestic product. But under those conditions it also said that domestic rice output could fall by as much as ¥1 trillion.
Mr. Abe, a known defense hawk, also took a swipe at China—not part of the TPP—in underlining the importance of the U.S.-led trade sphere by calling Japan’s participation a “joint effort with the U.S. in building a new economic sphere.”
“Taking part in the rule-making process with Asia Pacific countries who share the values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law will not only benefit Japan but the world at large,” Mr. Abe said, adding that “an economic partnership with countries that share a common economic order will bring stability to Japan’s regional security.”
The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan said it welcomed Friday’s announcement.
“The TPP provides a unique chance for the United States and Japan to work together in shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific region in line with our shared economic interests and values,” ACCJ President Larry Bates said.
—Takashi Mochizuki contributed to this article.