Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe, far left, and other members of his Cabinet prepare to answer questions at the Upper House Budget Committee on Nov. 5. (Takeshi Iwashita)

Opposition lawmakers have criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for invoking the term "TAG," in reference to trade talks with the United States, calling it a smokescreen for a free trade agreement, or FTA.

There is belief that Abe's use of three-letter acronyms for such talks with the United States could serve to brush aside concerns from domestic groups whose interests could be hurt as a result of such discussions.

TAG, for Trade Agreement on Goods, first surfaced in a public document in a joint statement issued Sept. 26 after Abe met with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York.

Speaking in the Upper House Budget Committee on Nov. 5, Hideya Sugio of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, asked Abe, "Was the TAG term not created to help you legitimize Diet deliberations, since you have repeatedly said that you would never enter into an FTA with the United States?"

Explaining that the acronym was needed simply to name the discussions, Abe responded, "It signifies our stance toward the negotiations and contains our intention to protect Japanese agricultural products."

The main problem with Abe's argument is that the United States almost never uses the term.

In an interview with the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper, U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty clearly said the United States never uses the acronym TAG and it was a term created by the media.

Abe knew he faced a possible backlash if the agreement with Trump in September was nothing but a signal to start bilateral trade negotiations, and seemed concerned that a new term was needed to differentiate future discussions with the United States.

One day before his meeting with Trump, Toshimitsu Motegi, the state minister in charge of economic revitalization, met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for preliminary discussions to clear the way for the Abe-Trump meeting the following day.

The Motegi-Lighthizer talks were part of a different set of negotiations known as the FFR, for free, fair and reciprocal. The FFR was set up because of Japanese aversion to talks over an FTA with the United States.

When Motegi reported to Abe about his talks with Lighthizer, the prime minister asked what the new set of talks to be included in the joint statement to be released after his talks with Trump would be called. He had something in mind that could be described in three letters, such as FFR or TPP, the latter for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement.

One government source with inside knowledge of the discussions praised Abe for insisting on TAG to differentiate the new set of discussions from FTA talks.

The last thing Abe wanted was for new bilateral trade negotiations to be considered as leading toward an FTA, which farm groups in Japan are fiercely opposed to. Getting on the wrong side of such groups would not help the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in next summer's Upper House election.

However, while the TAG acronym may help Abe deflect domestic criticism, the huge gap in use with the United States could affect bilateral discussions that are expected to become more serious from next year.

Japanese officials have tried to convince their U.S. counterparts that the first stage of negotiations should focus on reducing trade tariffs, leaving more difficult discussions on removing non-tariff barriers on services for the second stage.

Some in the government also felt that Trump was only interested in automobiles, steel and beef in trade talks with Japan.

But the joint statement issued in September clearly states that the two nations will enter into negotiations not only for trade of goods, but also "other key areas including services."

While a high-ranking government official said Japan would only discuss products in trade negotiations with the United States, it remains to be seen if U.S. officials will be content with such a narrow focus.

Abe was still trying to insist that the September agreement with Trump was not for discussions related to a comprehensive FTA.

"The most recent joint statement does not foresee including in the negotiations the liberalization of all service industries as well as a wide range of trade rules," Abe told the Upper House Budget Committee on Nov. 5.

(This article was written by Yuki Nikaido and Akihiro Nishiyama.)