TOKYO (AP) _ Japan's Cabinet officially endorsed a plan on Friday to impose duties on foreign rice despite opposition from major trading partners in a move designed to protect the country's farmers from cheap imports.

A flat tariff of 351.17 yen ($3.05) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) will be introduced as of April 1, 1999, said Masaki Takamoto, a spokesman for the Japanese agriculture ministry.

The import duty will be reduced to 341 yen ($2.96) per kilogram the following year, the spokesman said.

``It is the best choice for the interest of the nation,'' Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was quoted as saying by Kyodo News agency.

The tariffs will help safeguard Japan's politically-influential farmers, who have grown accustomed to rice prices which are among the most expensive in the world.

But the decision seemed likely to upset the U.S. and other trading partners anxious to expand sales in the lucrative Japanese market at a time when Japan's global trade surplus has ballooned.

Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley warned Japan against implementing high rice tariffs, saying it could ``cripple'' imports of U.S. rice to Japan.

Japan pledged to open its rice market to imports in a landmark 1993 trade agreement which committed it to set minimum access levels and move toward a system of tariffication.

The so-called Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade obliged Japan to import 4 percent of its rice in 1995 and to gradually increase that amount to about eight percent by 2000.