TOKYO (AP) - Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced Friday that Japan will participate in talks on joining a U.S.-backed Pacific Rim free trade zone, a decision strongly opposed by farmers who say the move will ruin them.
Noda said joining negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership would allow Japan to tap into the region's dynamic growth.
"I've decided to start discussions with related countries toward joining TPP negotiations at the APEC summit in Honolulu," Noda told a news conference the night before his departure for Hawaii. "I believe joining the talks would serve our national interest."
The ruling party has been deeply divided over the issue, and Noda's announcement was delayed for a day by intense debate.
Big exporters say that joining the trade bloc would allow them greater access to foreign markets, promote regional investment and keep Japan competitive. But heavily subsidized farmers worry that slashing high tariffs on rice and other agricultural goods would drive them out of business.
Noda's decision "will lead to a situation that we will regret in the future," Akira Banzai, chairman of Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, said in a statement. "We should not sell off our national interest."
Although agriculture accounts for just 1.5 percent of Japan's economy, farmers have an outsized influence in parliament because of the way rural districts are represented.
"I'm fully aware that TPP could provide a big merit but is also causing tremendous concern," Noda said. "We will defend what we must protect, and try to win what we should gain."
But he added, "Japan must tap into the Asia-Pacific region's growth in order to pass on our prosperity, which we have built as a trading nation, to the next generation."
The U.S., Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are currently negotiating to join the bloc, which already brings together the smaller economies of Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore.
Noda had said he wanted to make a decision on whether to join the bloc before the APEC summit, where President Barack Obama will host 20 other regional leaders. He said he planned to inform Obama and other participants about his decision during the meeting.
Some APEC members see the TPP as a building block for a free trade area encompassing all of Asia and the Pacific that would comprise half the world's commerce and two-fifths of its trade.