TOKYO, April 2 (Kyodo) — Farm minister Hirotaka Akamatsu on Friday said Japan intends to continue talks with the United States on the beef trade, even though restrictions on U.S. beef imports were likely to remain.

The agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister made the remarks at a press conference ahead of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's visit to Japan next week.

Akamatsu said it would be "hard" to abolish the ban on imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged over 20 months, as demanded by Washington, but Tokyo is "willing to continue discussing the matter."

Vilsack is due to arrive in Japan next Monday for a five-day visit. Apart from his meeting with Akamatsu on Thursday, he will take part in a symposium in Tokyo.

This week, Vilsack acknowledged the difficulty in convincing Japan to lift its controls on U.S. beef imports, which were imposed out of fears about mad cow disease, but said he expects "forward progress" regarding the matter when he meets Akamatsu.

Japan and the United States are at odds over Washington's insistence that Tokyo abolish its ban on imports of U.S. beef from cattle aged over 20 months.

Tokyo suspended all beef imports from the United States after the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, was found in 2003.

Japan, which had until then been the U.S. cattle industry's biggest export market, later partially reopened the beef market with certain restrictions, including the age limit.

Vilsack's trip comes as the U.S. Congress ratchets up pressure on Tokyo to lift the ban as soon as possible ahead of the midterm election in November.

Earlier this month, two resolutions were presented calling on Japan to fully reopen its beef market to U.S. beef imports, with an author of one of them saying, "For several years now, Japan has used nonscientific standards to restrict access to high-quality U.S. beef products."