TOKYO — Top Japan and U.S. trade officials plan to meet this weekend, seeking to close gaps over autos and farm trade before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Washington later this month.
Economy minister Akira Amari announced plans for the talks with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman late Friday.
"Following working-level talks, we reached an understanding that we have made certain progress, and decided on further discussions in ministerial-level talks," Amari told reporters.
"We are pretty sure our talks won't break down, and that's why we just notified the U.S. of our decision to hold ministerial talks," he said.
The U.S. and Japan must agree on market-opening measures before the 12 countries involved can reach a long-delayed final accord on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade pact.
Key sticking points have been barriers to Japanese auto exports to the U.S. and U.S. farm exports to Japan.
But an agreement by U.S. lawmakers Thursday to propose legislation allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate trade accords for overall congressional review appeared to help move things along.
The plan for a meeting between Froman and Amari suggests the two sides made progress this week on resolving differences over the pace and scale of market opening.
"We cannot be too optimistic, but there seems to be a growing motivation on the U.S. side for the need to wrap it up," Amari said.
He said talks would begin after Froman's arrival late Sunday and continue Monday.
Before the latest round of working-level talks began Wednesday, Amari tried to keep expectations low, telling public broadcaster NHK that the April 28 summit between Abe and Obama is not a "deadline" and that Tokyo was not planning to make concessions.
At the outset of the TPP talks, Japan identified five categories of agricultural products as "sensitive," given its longstanding protections for politically powerful farm interests. They include beef and pork, wheat and barley, sugar, rice and dairy products.
An aging population and changing tastes mean Japan is consuming less and less rice, and has a significant surplus of its own, protected by tariffs and other supports that cost taxpayers and consumers in Japan some 1 trillion yen ($8.4 billion), according to an estimate by Kazuhito Yamashita, research director at the Canon Institute of Global Studies in Tokyo.
Largely city-dwelling, price-conscious consumers would likely welcome cheaper dairy and meat products, but lack the political sway of the rural electorate that has been the mainstay of support for Abe's Liberal Democratic Party since the 1950s.
Still, analysts say that changes will be gradual. Japanese media reports Friday suggested that Japan would likely agree to increase its imports of American grown rice, while keeping costly price supports to protect local farmers.
Advocates of the TPP, which is seen as a first step toward a much wider free trade region, say it will encompass 40 percent of all economic activity.
The gaps between the U.S. and Japan, relative to the importance of the TPP, are so small that "it seems almost inconceivable that either Tokyo or Washington could let them stand in the way of a TPP agreement," Richard Katz, a long-time Japan observer and editor of The Oriental Economist, said in a recent commentary.
"And yet, the politics of special interests and parliamentary horse-trading loom so large in each country that continued delay seems, not only conceivable, but even more likely than agreement by, say, June 30 and certainly by April 28," Katz wrote.
AP Business Writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.