Masuzoe stakes political life on fixing pension mess

by Setsuko Kamiya

New Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe says he will “stake his political life” on matching the 50 million unidentified pension premium records, whose decades of mishandling by the Social Insurance Agency led many people to receive smaller payments than they were due.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew up a plan prior to the July 29 Upper House election calling for the government to finish matching up all the records by March. But the issue, brought to attention by the Democratic Party of Japan, hit the Liberal Democratic Party like a freight train in the election, knocking it out of the majority in the Upper House.

Amid the backlash, Masuzoe, 58, managed to hold on to his Upper House seat and is now in his second term.

“During the campaign, I told voters that I was committed to matching the records to the very last person and the very last yen. And that is why I decided to take this position, which is very important but is full of tough challenges,” Masuzoe told reporters at the ministry Tuesday, a day after he was appointed health minister.

“Prior to becoming a minister, I’ve received so many letters from voters whose lives are hit hard because they are not getting back what they have paid from the money they worked hard to earn. I’m going to do everything I can so that everyone can feel secure,” he said.

Masuzoe’s appointment came as a surprise, as he had been a vocal critic of Abe’s handling of his previous, scandal-ridden Cabinet. Some view it as an attempt by Abe to signal he’s willing to listen to criticism from within the LDP.

In his first election in 2001, Masuzoe, a noted political critic who had taught at the University of Tokyo, was strongly backed by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In addition to penning several books on politics, he has written about his experience caring for his mother, who suffered from dementia and died in 2000.

Masuzoe has said he entered politics because he learned from this experience that care for the elderly is a pressing political issue.

Regarding scandal-tainted nursing-care firm Comsn Inc., Masuzoe said he will make sure similar wrongdoings that could affect people receiving care will not happen again and added a panel of specialists is currently discussing preventive measures.

Comsn obtained nursing-care business licenses through fraudulent applications. The ministry’s threat to cancel the licenses could have affected thousands of people, but Comsn has agreed to sell its nursing homes to rival Nichii Gakkan Co.