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TPP bills' vote schedule postponed after farm minister calls his earlier remark 'joke'

Agriculture Minister Yuji Yamamoto, right, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are seen at the prime minister's office ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 1, 2016. (Mainichi)

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) agreed on Nov. 2 to delay a vote on bills related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, after the agriculture minister came under fire for calling an earlier controversial remark on the bills a joke.

The two parties had agreed to hold a vote on the set of bills during a Nov. 2 House of Representatives TPP special committee meeting and its plenary session on Nov. 4, but the latest decision has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the voting schedule.

Speaking at a gathering for fellow LDP lawmakers on the evening of Nov. 1, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yuji Yamamoto said, "I almost got fired (from my ministerial position) the other day for making a joke (about pushing the TPP-related bills through the Diet)."

The comment caused a backlash from opposition parties, prompting LDP Diet Affairs Committee chairman Wataru Takeshita and his DP counterpart Kazunori Yamanoi to hold a meeting the following day, in which Takeshita told Yamanoi that the vote would be postponed. The DP and three other opposition parties -- the Japanese Communist Party, Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party -- have agreed to demand Yamamoto's resignation over the matter.

The agriculture minister told the Nov. 1 gathering that he was given a warning by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on the phone over a comment he made on Oct. 18 at a party for LDP member Tsutomu Sato, chairman of the lower house Committee on Rules and Administration. During that party Yamamoto had stated, "Mr. Sato will decide whether (the TPP-related) bills will be railroaded through the Diet." He retracted the Oct. 18 comment the following day at the special committee's meeting of directors after opposition parties slammed him over the gaffe. Yamamoto added at the Nov. 1 gathering, "I shouldn't make any more unnecessary remarks."

Yamamoto apologized to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on the phone later on Nov. 1. Suga told him to be careful with his words because the TPP issue is at a delicate stage. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who received the information on the agriculture minister's comment while he was dining with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and others, appeared unhappy with Yamamoto's latest gaffe.

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