(Sankei: February 3, 2015 – p. 5)
Amid intensifying moves within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to implement agricultural reform, Akira Banzai, Chairman of the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives (JA-Zenchu), is actively lobbying influential LDP members such as Minister in charge of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy Shigeru Ishiba and former Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Yoshimasa Hayashi, who are agricultural reformists affiliated with farm organizations. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to “do away with” JA-Zenchu, Banzai is desperately trying to achieve a “soft landing” for the reform by retaining JA-Zenchu’s auditing and supervisory authority in accordance with the Agricultural Cooperative Law. In the meantime, the situation has given the LDP reformists a good opportunity to increase their influence within the party by making JA-Zenchu feel indebted to them.
PM Abe demonstrated his eagerness to implement agricultural reform during a House of Councilors Budget Committee session held on Feb. 2 by saying: “The bottom line is that farmers and regional agricultural cooperatives should play the leading role. I would like to the implement fundamental reform of the agricultural cooperatives based on the farmers’ standpoint.”
PM Abe believes that the current system of agricultural cooperatives with JA-Zenchu as the organizational leader is preventing farmers from demonstrating their originality and ingenuity. He has instructed leading members of the LDP Policy Research Council to formulate the reform plan as soon as possible so that he can talk about the plans for agricultural reform in his upcoming policy speech scheduled for mid-February.
In response to PM Abe’s instructions, LDP lawmakers affiliated with farm organizations have began to hold unofficial meetings with JA members on Jan. 30. In an informal meeting of LDP members affiliated with farm organizations conducted on Feb. 2, some members who are cautious about the reform said, “Various opinions are being voiced within the party. There is no need to rush to a conclusion.” Although Hayashi and Ken Saito, Chairman of the LDP’s Agriculture and Forestry Division, called for a swift conclusion of the deliberations, they were reportedly unable to make any progress toward an agreement.
The LDP members who are “cautious about the reform” have close relationships with JA leaders, including Banzai. On the other hand, Hayashi apparently had “no relationship with agricultural administration” until he was appointed as the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries at the end of 2012 and then took the chairman’s position of the LDP’s Agricultural and Forestry Division in October 2013. Therefore, Hayashi is viewed as a lawmaker who has no connections with farm organizations and is less reluctant to proceed with the reform.
In the informal meetings, officials of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry who used to team up with JA-Zenchu on rice policy are reportedly shifting toward reform by saying that “the role of JA-Zenchu has drastically changed” (according to one official). Under the circumstances, Banzai felt alarmed and apparently decided to start lobbying the reformists on his own.
First Banzai called on Ishiba. When Ishiba was LDP Secretary General, he called for making JA-Zenchu an incorporated body and laid the groundwork for abolishing the acreage reduction system despite opposition from JA-Zenchu.
Banzai met with Ishiba on Jan. 27 in Tokyo. He told Ishiba, “It makes sense to fully take advantage of the JA groups’ functions for regional revitalization,” calling for retaining JA-Zenchu’s auditing and supervisory authority in accordance with the Agricultural Cooperative Law. Ishiba reportedly responded by saying that “JA will play a major role” in the process of formulating an overall strategy for regional revitalization, but did not express any opposing view against the administration’s agricultural reform plan.
Banzai also met on Feb. 1 with Hayashi and Takamori Yoshikawa, the project team chief for deliberations on legislation related to agricultural reform and former Vice Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. When a ministry official showed him the plan for abolishing JA-Zenchu currently under consideration, Banzai reportedly expressed vehement opposition to the plan.
Although it appears as though Banzai and the reformist camp are engaged in an all-out confrontation, they also seem to be conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations to seek common ground.
The JA side definitely wants to avoid an outcome in which JA becomes a private organization that is not backed by law (according to a JA-affiliated source). Through its lobbying efforts, the JA side seems to be trying to build stronger connections with Ishiba and Hayashi for the future.
Both Ishiba and Hayashi ran in the LDP presidential election in 2012 and are reportedly still seeking opportunities to lead the nation. One LDP member analyzes the situation by saying, “If they can make the JA side feel indebted to them, it will increase their influence not only among members affiliated with farmers but also in the party as a whole.” In other words, JA’s efforts to win them over will be advantageous to them as well.