Joint stock companies may be given license to farm

Latest restructuring drive also hopes to reinvigorate schools, ports, hospitals and research

The government plans to allow joint stock companies to operate farms in specially designated areas, a big change considering that historically only private individuals have been allowed to farm.

The plan is part of an 80-point program to establish special reform zones that the government adopted Friday with the hope of spearheading deregulation.

The program, endorsed by a government task force, also calls for allowing schools to decide on their own curricula — even allowing them to teach subjects such as mathematics and science in English.

But a controversial proposal for shareholder-owned companies to be permitted to operate hospitals and schools was passed over due to strong opposition from the ministries and agencies involved.

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Chikara Sakaguchi told a news conference, “Medical care is not supposed to be a profit-making activity. Authorizing the entry of stock companies into this area would be tantamount to ravaging reforms at a time when we intend to reform the medical care system with this ideal in mind.”

Commenting on the program, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi applauded his government’s deregulation efforts.

“The program includes measures everyone thought would not be attainable,” Koizumi told reporters. “We are producing appreciable results.”

The prime minister also called on Cabinet ministers to press ahead with deregulation.

With the adoption of the program and after legislation is enacted, local governments and municipalities are expected to submit applications to establish special zones.

The government believes the program will contribute to its efforts to fight deflation by reinvigorating local economies.

The government plans to submit a bill on the Special Reform Zone Law to the extraordinary Diet session, which convenes Friday, so the zones can be established by spring, the officials said.

Other proposed zones include those that would allow the private-sector to lease out public port facilities, enable companies to inexpensively use university facilities, extend the period of stay for foreign researchers from three to five years and allow foreign doctors to provide medical services.

As for foreign researchers, the ministry plans to extend their visa period and to allow them to engage in business activities if municipalities or other bodies can guarantee their status.

The ministry may also relax permanent residency requirements for foreigners working in the special zones, the sources said.

As of the end of August, the government had received 426 proposals on special zones from municipalities and businesses.

The government plans to solicit further proposals with a new deadline set for Jan. 15.