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Editorial: Farm minister Yamamoto unqualified to oversee TPP bills

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yuji Yamamoto, one of the Cabinet members responsible for bills related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact including one to ratify the accord, has come under fire over his verbal gaffes. The Democratic Party (DP) and other opposition parties are demanding that Yamamoto quit the Cabinet.

Yamamoto mentioned the possibility that the ruling bloc could railroad the bills, and subsequently described the gaffe as "a joke." His words and deeds are hard to understand.

He subsequently retracted his problematic remarks, but his lack of common sense has damaged the public's trust in him as a responsible minister. He apparently lacks the qualifications to serve in the Cabinet.

"I was nearly dismissed after making a joke," Yamamoto said in a speech at a fundraising party for a fellow legislator with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Nov. 1, provoking laughter. Yamamoto's series of gaffes started at a fundraising party for LDP member and chairman of the House of Representatives Rules and Administration Committee Tsutomu Sato, on Oct. 18.

"Mr. Sato will decide whether to steamroll (the TPP-related bills). This is why I came here," Yamamoto said. Coming from a minister in charge of the bills, making remarks as if to encourage the legislature to ram them through was extremely inappropriate. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned Yamamoto, and Yamamoto apologized for his statement in a bid to bring the situation, which had been confused by his gaffe, under control.

However, Yamamoto later calling his gaffe "a joke" showed that he had not reflected on his comment at all. Moreover, Yamamoto said, "Here are many people from JA (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives). If you come to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry sometime around tomorrow, something good may happen for you," hinting at influence peddling.

Farmers are worried that Japan's participation in the TPP could deal a serious blow to Japanese farming and their livelihoods. Therefore, the executive branch needs to provide a careful explanation at the legislative branch to convince farmers. Yamamoto's gaffe shows that he is extremely insincere to the farming sector.

The government is looking to have the TPP bills clear the House of Representatives before the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. This would pave the way for passing them into law during the ongoing Diet session, and perhaps give a boost to forces in Washington seeking U.S. ratification of the pact in the face of growing resistance in Congress.

However, that can be done only if the government gains public understanding of the TPP through deliberations on the relevant bills. There are numerous points of contention, including the safety of items such as imported beef and genetically modified foods, as well as setting up a procedure for foreign companies suing the government to settle disputes.

Before Yamamoto's gaffes, an LDP board member of the lower house special committee on the TPP stirred criticism by stating, "We'll work hard to railroad the bills." The lawmaker subsequently stepped down from the board. These moves could be seen as symptomatic of the overwhelmingly dominant ruling party's arrogance and laziness.

The governing bloc abandoned having the bills clear the lower house this week, but went ahead with ramming them through the chamber's special committee, intensifying its confrontation with the DP and other opposition parties.

One cannot help but wonder whether the executive and legislative branches can hold in-depth debate on the issue under Yamamoto, and clarify what the TPP means. The prime minister who appointed the farm minister should fulfill his responsibility to settle the matter.

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