Vol. 4 Num 259 Wed. February 18, 2004  

Closeup Japan
Adversaries draw a battle line at the beef-front

By sending troops to Iraq with the declared purpose of helping country's reconstruction effort, Japan has recently became a willing partner of the United States at a battlefield turning increasingly risky. There is a common belief among many Japan watchers that the US-Japan cooperation in Iraqi war zone is more to do with country's oil resources than easing sufferings of the Iraqis, as both are in need of an uninterrupted flow of Middle-Eastern oil for keeping their economic machine running without any hindrance. As the eventual target and objectives of the missions of two countries are more or less similar, hence there is a need for coordinating the activities on the ground to avoid any confusion that might otherwise stand as a barrier in achieving the goal.

This understanding and cooperation between world's two economic giants at an odd place far away from their own territories, however, might give a wrong signal about the nature of overall bilateral relations between Tokyo and Washington. Japan and the United States do not necessarily belong to the same side in each and every dispute that the complexity of diplomacy is trying to find solutions for. As in the case of Iraq, the two countries might be helping each other at one particular front of an all out war that has been waged at different fronts at a time. But at the trading and commercial front, the cordial atmosphere of understanding has long been replaced by a tense situation in which each has periodically expressed concern about the motive of the other, and in times even resorted to threats and counter threats. This is exactly what is happening now at the beef-front, where the two countries are at a loggerhead over the issue of Japanese ban on import of beef from the United States.

About 30 percent of all beef consumed in Japan comes from the United States. This small statistical figure is enough to give a clear indication about the importance of Japanese market for American beef. As any radical shift in that market can have serious repercussions on beef producers, US farming lobby, therefore, has always kept an eye on Japan to avoid any such undesirable consequence. But the problem that US beef producers are facing now has originated not from Tokyo's willingness to look for an alternative market source, but from the hygienic condition of cattle in US farms.

As a second US cow was detected recently of carrying the virus of the deadly disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as Mad Cow Disease, Japan has become convinced that the decision Tokyo had taken hurriedly in December last year to impose a temporary ban on import of beef from the United States was a correct one. The first US BSE case was confirmed in December and Japanese decision of imposing ban on the import of US meat products came into effect immediately after that. The Japanese decision, no doubt, has been considered a serious blow to US beef producers and they approached the government to take up the issue at bilateral trade negotiations.

One of the long arms of US farming lobby has always been the office of the Trade Representative, which, in the name of free market trading practices, has always come forward to protect the rights of country's farming lobby by whatever means possible. The beef controversy with Japan too has provoked the office to draw a new battle line and the Trade Representative of the Bush administration, Robert Zoellick, has asked Japan to revoke the decision and restart the import of beef from the Unite States. The US government is claiming that in both the cases the detected cows came from Canada and cattle raised in US farms are safe enough for consumption. Moreover, the US side also claims that the testing conducted on US beef is scientific enough to ensure the safety of products. But Japan is not convinced and is demanding that the United States test all cattle for BSE or take similar measures for lifting the ban.

US Trade Representative was in Tokyo last week to coordinate a policy to revive the stalled WTO talks. But the beef situation has diverted his attention and Japanese import ban became the key topic of his discussions in Tokyo. After meeting Japanese leaders including Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, Zoellick told a news conference in Tokyo that Washington would discuss possible measures to reopen the market after assessing a review by an international panel commissioned by the US Agriculture Department. He also said he was confident US beef products were safe. But the Japanese side remains skeptical about the safety of US beef products and has reiterated its earlier demand that all US cattle be tested for BSE before imports can be resumed. Washington is rejecting that costly option, claiming it is doing enough to ensure the safety of its cattle for human consumption.

Japanese government was unmoved by the announcement and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejected the idea of resuming US beef import by saying that Japan will continue to ban the product if the US government doesn't take the same precautions as Japan. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, on the other hand, has cast doubt on Washington's finding by saying that the US Agriculture Department survey doesn't guarantee that all US cattle are safe.

An immediate breakthrough looks increasingly unlikely, as two countries continue to disagree on what safeguard are needed to lift the ban. The Japanese government is worried that resuming imports without comprehensive testing would be seen as a sign of weakness and opposition parties might take up the matter in election campaign to gain public sympathy before the July Upper House election. With the election looming, the ruling coalition is unlikely to change radically its position, despite the fact that no other country has followed mandatory testing of all cattle currently being practiced in Japan. The European Union, for example, only requires that cattle 30 months or older be examined. Younger cattle are distributed for consumption without test.

Meanwhile, removal of beef dishes across the country continues as consumers are becoming increasingly worried about the safety of beef products, dealing a serious blow to a group of restaurant chains that have depended heavily on cheap imported beef products for many of their popular dishes. Japan's own brand name meat items like Kobe Beef or Matsuzaka Beef no doubt carry the weight of their big names internationally, but they remain beyond the reach of ordinary consumers, who have always depended on imported cheap beef as the main source of their regular protein intake.