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Japan has been notoriously late in joining the "bilaterals bandwagon". Until the latter part of the 1990s, the government hedged most of its bets on multilateral negotiations as a means of opening up foreign markets to Japanese corporate interests. However, Japan is increasingly suffering the loss of market shares that FTAs between other countries produce. Because of NAFTA, for example, Japan felt an acute need for its own treaty with Mexico so that its products benefit from the same tariff levels on the Mexican market as those coming in from the United States.

Until recently, Japan focused its bilateral negotiating agenda on a few countries around the Pacific. Major deals have been signed with Singapore (2002), Malaysia (2004), Mexico (2004), Philippines (2006), Indonesia (2007), Chile (2007), Thailand (2007), ASEAN as a whole (2008) and Vietnam (2008).

In mid-2006, Tokyo announced the start of FTA talks with Brunei and these were wrapped up in 2007. Japan’s deals with both Brunei and Indonesia are unique because they guarantee Tokyo access to oil and gas supplies.

In mid-2006, Japan went so far as proposing an overarching East Asian FTA encompassing Japan, ASEAN, India, China, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. ASEAN, among others, gave this idea a cool response.

In 2007, negotiations with India and Australia began, while somewhere down the pipeline, Colombia, China, Korea, Cambodia and Laos are also on the agenda.

Other countries are further targets creeping into Japan’s bilateral trade agenda:
- In early 2005, Japan started exploring possible talks with Switzerland, and the actual negotiations started in 2007.
-  In 2006, spurred by concerns about access to energy resources, Japan moved towards kicking off talks for an FTA with Kuwait and other oil and gas-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
- There are also growing concerns about trade disadvantages for Japanese firms on a wider international scale, leading to FTA overtures towards Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand and even some wishful talk of a US-Japan deal.
-  In late 2011, Japan showed interest in negotiating an FTA with Burma.
-  In March 2012, there were indications of upcoming FTA talks with Mongolia and Canada.

The deals put forward by Japan are called "Economic Partnership Agreements" (EPAs), as the government holds that the term "free trade agreement" doesn’t capture the broader integration of economic and social policies that these treaties aim to achieve between the partner countries. But these EPAs are similar in coverage to a typical FTA from the US, New Zealand or the EU, if less ambitious on the content.

Domestic opposition to FTAs has crystallized around the announcement that the Japanese government intends to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP.) 2011 and 2012 have seen major demonstrations against the agreement were mounted by Japanese farmers, targeting the undermining of food security which agricultural liberalization under the proposed deal could bring about, especially in relation to rice. Zenroren (National Confederation of Trade Unions) also opposes the deal, with concerns about job losses, the opening up of the economy to US capital, and the erosion of living standards and working conditions. Many Japanese opponents view the TPP as being essentially a bilateral FTA with the US.

last update: May 2012

Japan to hold joint FTA meetings with Australia, Switzerland
Japan will hold its first joint study meetings separately with Switzerland and Australia next week in Tokyo to explore the possibility of concluding bilateral free trade agreements, the government said Wednesday.
Japan, Chile to begin free trade talks: report
Japan and Chile are likely to begin formal negotiations next year on an economic partnership centring on a free trade agreement (FTA), a newspaper said.
Guiding Japan: Leadership needed to unify multipronged FTA strategy
Japanese FTAs agreed to so far are half-hearted at best.
Nippon Keidanren seeks FTA with 6 Persian Gulf countries
The Japan Business Federation, the nation’s biggest business lobby, urged the government on Tuesday to start negotiations at an early date on concluding a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of six oil producers.
Japan urged to compromise more in FTA talks
ASEAN General Secretary Ong Keng Yong has called on Japan make more compromises in free trade talks between the country and the regional grouping.
Japan to boost aid for Asia to promote FTA
As part of efforts to promote free trade agreements (FTA) with Asian countries, Japan will step up such industrial aid as technical cooperation and personnel development for their automotive sectors.
South Africa, Japan plan panel to get FTA ball rolling
Japan and South Africa agreed Thursday to form a study group to examine the feasibility of striking a bilateral free-trade agreement. Japan will proceed with South African FTA talks with an eye to eventually concluding a free-trade pact with the entire SACU.
FTA talks with Thailand, Korea still divided
Prospects for Japan signing free-trade agreements (FTAs) with Thailand and South Korea are being stymied because the countries remain seriously divided on issues concerning key industrial and farm sectors, diplomatic sources have said.
Japan, Malaysia agree on FTA to open up Malaysian auto sector
Japan and Malaysia reached an agreement Wednesday on a free-trade agreement (FTA) that will open up a major new market for Japanese automakers as Kuala Lumpur agreed to lift tariffs on Japanese cars within 10 years.
Japan, Indonesia set to launch free-trade talks; Japan, Malaysia to hold next round
Japan and Indonesia are expected to agree to formally open free trade talks during an upcoming visit to Tokyo by the Indonesian president, a Japanese official said Thursday.


  • CUJ - FTA page
    Anti-FTA campaign page of Consumers Union of Japan
  • MOFA on Japan FTAs
    Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage on Japan’s FTAs and EPAs
  • Nippon Keidanren
    Japan Business Federation, established in 2002. Website contains several policy papers and position statements on Japan’s FTA strategy.