Photo/IllutrationToshimitsu Motegi, left, the state minister in charge of economic revitalization, prepares for trade talks last September with Robert Lighthizer, far right, the U.S. trade representative. (Pool)

In Tokyo's political heartland of Nagatacho, no one is complaining about the government shutdown in Washington, as it simply delays the start of trade talks that Japan grudgingly agreed to hold.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been reluctant to enter into any negotiations for a bilateral trade pact with the United States.

That led to linguistic gymnastics between the two nations as Japan refers to the new trade talk framework as a process to achieve a Trade Agreement on Goods, while Washington has referred to the same talks as seeking a U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement.

The office of the U.S. trade representative (USTR) released a document on Dec. 21 that outlined the goals it was seeking in trade talks with Japan. That is a formality required by U.S. law before any negotiations can begin with a foreign nation.

The law calls for such a document at least 30 days before the start of such talks.

Initially, government officials felt that meant the trade talks might begin as early as late January.

But Toshimitsu Motegi, the state minister in charge of economic revitalization who is leading the Japanese delegation, told reporters on Jan. 18: "The U.S. side appears in need of a little more time. While no agreement has been reached yet on when the talks will begin, we plan to coordinate the timing of the talks from a number of perspectives."

The U.S. government shutdown appears to be having an effect on the start of those talks.

One calculation made late last year said that only about 30 percent of USTR employees would continue to work in the event of the shutdown. Moreover, U.S. officials are now concentrating on trade talks with China as there is a March 1 deadline for those negotiations.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 16 that Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, indicated trade talks with Japan and the European Union would likely be delayed.

Such a delay suits government officials in Tokyo as well, and one high-ranking government official who will handle the trade talks with the United States said, "They will likely begin in March or after April, when the new fiscal year starts in Japan."

Government officials were concerned that they would not have time to deal with their U.S. counterparts because many would be busy handling Diet deliberations on the fiscal 2019 budget proposal, a time-consuming process that ties up the entire government at least until April.

But, those officials will not likely be able to delay the start of talks beyond April as U.S. officials are getting heat from farm groups to start negotiations immediately out of concerns they will be disadvantaged in terms of trade with Japan.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has already taken effect and so will an economic partnership agreement with the EU from Feb. 1. That will place Australian and EU exporters of agricultural products at an advantage over their U.S. rivals because they would face lower tariffs.

(This article was written by Naoatsu Aoyama in Washington and Akihiro Nishiyama in Tokyo.)