As Japan looks to deflect opposition to its inclusion in a pan-Pacific free-trade pact, a Washington lobbying battle is taking shape, with a prominent D.C. law firm and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on one side and American automakers on the other.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced in November that his country would join discussions for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is trying to eliminate import tariffs. The United States and eight other nations also are participating in the talks.

Japan’s push to join the pact comes as it grapples with its first trade deficit in 31 years. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, posted a 2.49 trillion yen ($32 billion) deficit in 2011 as it increased oil imports to help keep the power on when nuclear power plants went idle after the Fukushima catastrophe.

In this case, lobbyists have a number of targets. To ensure U.S. support for the inclusion of Japan in the pact, the country must receive the endorsement of the U.S. executive branch, which is negotiating the agreement, and Congress, which must approve the deal for it to go into effect in the United States. The Obama administration is looking to finalize a deal with the pact countries by the end of this year.

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which started advocating for Japan in February 2011, signed a new contract to lobby for the country in November — just as Japan began its push to gain admission to the trade pact. Japan is trying to overcome the qualms of some U.S. lawmakers and American automakers about its historically closed market.

The firm in November signed a $225,000 deal with Japan to lobby for it until March 31, according to paperwork filed with the U.S. Justice Department. If the contract is extended, it would net the firm an additional $50,000 per month. Given that negotiations could last through the end of 2012, Akin lawyers stand to make as much as $450,000 more this year.

“Japan and the United States are enjoying a period of close cooperation and renewed commitment to the bilateral relationship,” Akin partner Scott Parven, the firm’s Japan team leader, said in a statement. “Akin Gump is representing the government of Japan to educate and inform interested stakeholders about the many aspects of this important relationship.”

Two Akin spokespeople declined to elaborate further on its advocacy efforts for Japan, as well as whether it is working with law firms in Japan on lobbying-related issues. Shinju Karasawa, a spokesman for the Japanese embassy in Washington, didn’t return a call for comment.

But documents submitted to DOJ for 2011 lobbying indicate that Akin in December had discussions related to Japan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The records show that the firm had contact in November and December with the Senate Finance Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and an unnamed congressman on behalf of Japan.

About a dozen Akin lobbyists are handling the account, according to DOJ records. Partners Stephen Kho, a former attorney with the USTR, and Jeffrey McMillen, a former House Ways and Means Committee staffer, as well as policy adviser Zachary Paulsen, a former Senate Finance Committee aide, are among the members of the team.

Japan and Akin have the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber, which represents more than 3 million businesses, “welcome[s] the opportunity to work with our Japanese colleagues on a new 21st Century standard for trade and investment in the Asia Pacific,” Tami Overby, the organization’s vice president for Asia, wrote in a blog post in December. “Over the next several weeks the Chamber will be working with our members and the U.S. government on a pathway forward,” she wrote. “We are asking our Japanese colleagues to reinforce their statement of desire with actions which will demonstrate their readiness to make the tough, market liberalizing changes necessary in a 21st Century trade negotiation.”

Overby didn’t respond to requests for comment about the Chamber’s work on Japan’s push to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

AUTOMAKERS OBJECT

Concerns in the United States about Japan’s closed market could be an obstacle to the Trans-Pacific Partnership — and are spurring the main lobbying opposition to the country’s inclusion into the trade pact: U.S. automakers.

Ford Motor Co. lobbied on Capitol Hill last year against the addition of Japan to the partnership, company spokeswoman Christin Baker said. Expressing concern with Japan’s closed market, she said Japan’s inclusion in the pact risks delaying an important agreement.

Ford’s efforts are being bolstered by the two other main U.S. auto manufacturers, at least through the American Automotive Policy Council, the trade group that represents Ford, Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co.

The auto council said in a filing with the USTR that Japan should show “a multi-year commitment” to opening its market to automobile imports before the United States considers the addition of the country to the pact.

“Over the last 50 years, Japan has deliberately provided its auto market with every protection from competition it could,” the Council wrote. “Despite numerous efforts by the United States to open the Japanese market — including five high-level bilateral initiatives from 1980-1995 — the Japanese auto market has remained closed to imports. Today, Japan is the most closed auto market in the developed world.”

In an interview, former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R), president of the auto council, said his organization has “a strong array of facts” that it is presenting at meetings on Capitol Hill and at the USTR to make its case against the addition of Japan to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

.Other groups have also gotten into the lobbying fray on the issue.

The California Rice Commission, North American Equipment Dealers Association and American Natural Soda Ash Corp. lobbied last year on Japan’s inclusion in the pact, according to congressional records. The equipment dealers and the soda ash company support Japan’s inclusion into the pact, according to federal records. The Rice Commission also backs the addition of Japan to the agreement, board member Michael Rue said.

Amid the lobbying battle, the Obama administration is arguing that Japan is making progress.

According to the USTR, Japan has taken steps to improve market access for U.S. services and goods, including cosmetics, advanced pharmaceuticals and cars with new technologies, since the launch of the U.S.-Japan Economic Harmonization Initiative in November 2010.

This loosening of trade restrictions has come at an auspicious moment.

Last week, Japanese and U.S. officials met in Washington for their first bilateral meeting on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. A follow-up meeting in Wash­ington is scheduled for later this month.

A ROLE FOR HOGAN?

Akin isn’t the only firm currently lobbying for Japan, according to DOJ records. But it appears the firm is the only lobby shop working on the trade pact for Japan, which might make sense given that a handful of the same firm lobbyists registered to advocate last year for South Korea on the South Korea-United States free trade agreement, which Congress approved in October.

Hogan Lovells has represented Japan since 1971. Japan paid Hogan almost $430,000 during the first eight months of 2011, according to the firm’s most recent DOJ filings.

Lobbyists from Hogan last year advocated on issues that included matters stemming from World War II, as well as child abduction. But Hogan didn’t specifically state any advocacy related to international trade in its most recent DOJ lobbying filing. The paperwork covered lobbying from March 1 to August 31.

Hogan partner Raymond Calamaro said in paperwork submitted to the DOJ in April that his firm’s services may “include representation in international trade-related matters and litigation.” But Calamaro declined to comment on what, if any, role Hogan may have assisting Japan with matters related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Podesta Group and Hecht, Spencer & Associates — both apparently subcontractors for Hogan — also are advocating for Japan these days. But it’s also unclear whether they are working on matters concerning the trade pact.

Podesta principal Missi Tessier directed questions to Calamaro. Hecht, Spencer & Associates Vice President Timothy Hecht, who also has submitted lobbying paperwork for Japan, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at aramonas@alm.com.