Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Monday to address challenges including mitigating the impact of a planned tax hike and resolving a long-standing territorial row with Russia as he gave a policy speech that was seen as a pitch to voters ahead of this summer’s upper house election.
In his address to the Diet at the start of its new session, Abe also apologized for the release of faulty data by the labor ministry for more than a decade that resulted in work-related benefits being underpaid to over 20 million people.
Underscoring the country’s economic expansion since he took office in 2012, he promised to safeguard growth with stimulus measures designed to reduce the negative impact of the consumption tax hike to 10 percent from 8 percent on Oct 1, which he said is necessary to cover swelling welfare costs.
“We absolutely need to secure stable fiscal resources by lifting the consumption tax rate in order to overcome the issue of an aging population and declining birthrate and create a social security system that can benefit all generations,” Abe said.
Reflecting on a brief economic downturn that followed the previous consumption tax hike to 8 percent from 5 percent in 2014, Abe said the government will this time “take all possible measures” to keep the economy on track.
It will specifically review the allocation of revenues from the tax to spend more on supporting families raising children and households with lower incomes through such measures as free preschool education as well as providing shopping vouchers with enhanced purchasing power, he said.
The government and ruling bloc seek to pass through the Diet a draft second supplementary budget for fiscal 2018 worth 3.4 trillion yen ($27.8 billion) by early February and a record-high 101.46 trillion yen budget plan for the next fiscal year — beginning April — by the end of March.
On foreign policy, the prime minister said he will seek to resolve the challenges Japan has faced in its postwar diplomacy. He expressed determination to sign a peace treaty with Russia to formally end World War II hostilities by solving the row over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido and to normalize diplomatic ties with North Korea.
“I share a strong determination with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin not to leave the issue unsolved now that it has been more than 70 years since the end of the war,” Abe said.
Last week, Abe held talks with Putin in Moscow and reaffirmed that they will accelerate negotiations for a bilateral peace treaty.
To deal with North Korea, Abe said Japan will engage in necessary cooperation with the United States and South Korea.
He did not mention the recent tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over an incident in which Japan accused a South Korean naval vessel of directing its fire control radar against a Japanese patrol aircraft and rulings by South Korea’s top court that ordered Japanese firms to compensate for wartime forced labor.
Abe also pledged to push ahead with reforms to “build a new defense capability” so that Japan will maintain comparative superiority in new domains such as space and cyberspace based on its new national defense guidelines.
On his long-held political goal of revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution, Abe said he “expects political parties to deepen debate” at designated committees in both Diet chambers.
Abe has maintained he wants to implement the first-ever amendment to the supreme law by 2020, although his Liberal Democratic Party failed to present proposals on the matter during an extra Diet session last year.
The government plans to limit the number of bills it will submit to the 150-day ordinary Diet session to 58, the second-smallest on record, in light of a tight political schedule.
It will be difficult to extend the session beyond June 26 as Japan will host the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in late June and also hold an upper house election in summer.
On April 30, during the period parliament is in session, Emperor Akihito will abdicate and Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend the throne the following day, resulting in a rare 10-day holiday in Japan from late April.
On the scandal involving the labor ministry data, which cast into doubt the credibility of government statistics as a whole, Abe vowed to make all-out efforts to prevent a recurrence.
He is apparently rushing to contain the case, having seen a similar scandal in 2007 where the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare lost pension records deal a serious blow to his first administration.
Opposition parties are set to pressure the Abe administration over the scandal during the current Diet session ahead of a series of national and local elections this year.