Abe stakes future on terror law extension

Strikes conciliatory note as he opens Diet session

by Hiroko Nakata

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened the 62-day extraordinary Diet session Monday, one day after indicating his readiness to step down if he fails to win extension of Japan’s support for antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

In the evening, Abe told reporters that his remark Sunday should be “taken at face value.”

“I made the remarks with the determination to stake my job on and deal with the issue with the utmost effort,” Abe said.

When reporters tried to reconfirm if he truly meant he would step down, Abe said, “I believe that’s how the respective media organizations understood it.”

In his first policy speech to the Diet after his ruling coalition’s stunning defeat in the House of Councilors election in July, Abe took a conciliatory tone, pledging to work more closely with the opposition camp and to reach out to ailing rural areas.

Abe asked the opposition camp to back extending the special 2001 law enabling Japan to provide logistic support for antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan. On Sunday in Sydney, Abe indicated he might step down if the Diet spurns his bid.

He also expressed his regret over the resignation last week of Takehiko Endo as farm minister, saying the government will try to stop a recurrence of money scandals involving lawmakers. A farmers’ mutual aid group that Endo led was found to have illegally received government subsidies.

The generally repentant tone of the policy speech was in sharp contrast to Abe’s past speeches to the Diet. After taking office last year, he pledged to pursue what he termed a departure from the postwar regime, including revising the war-renouncing Constitution drafted by the Occupation forces after World War II.

“From now on, I will run the government based on a deep repentance for not fully responding to people’s concerns and anger, which were shown at the election, and for letting their distrust in politics grow,” Abe told the Diet.

The Liberal Democratic Party and its governing coalition partner New Komeito will hold “constructive debates” with opposition parties in an attempt to reach agreement on each issue, Abe said.

In the July 29 election, Abe’s LDP-led coalition lost control of the Upper House to the opposition camp, with the Democratic Party of Japan emerging as the largest force in the upper chamber. Although the coalition still maintains a comfortable majority in the more powerful Lower House, the opposition control of the Upper House poses a serious obstacle for Abe’s legislative agenda.

His immediate challenge is the extension of the special law, which will expire Nov. 1, that has enabled Japan’s refueling of coalition vessels in the Indian Ocean for the Afghanistan mission. DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa has repeatedly vowed to block its extension.

Abe called for “understanding and cooperation” to continue the mission, describing the refueling activity by the Maritime Self-Defense Force as an essential part of the international effort against terrorism.

“Can Japan withdraw from the operation and give up its responsibility to the international community?” Abe asked.

During a news conference Sunday in Sydney, where he took part in the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Abe said extending the MSDF mission has become Japan’s “international commitment,” which must be fulfilled by “all possible” means. He even indicated he might resign if he fails to win its extension, saying he has “no intention of clinging to my duties” as prime minister in such a case.

In his Diet speech, Abe said he acknowledged calls for him to step down to take responsibility for the LDP’s defeat in the July election.

But he also said he would stay in his post to pursue reform of the nation’s inefficient bureaucracy, to revive the education system, and to enhance national security so that Japan can take a bigger international role.

The July election saw the LDP deserted by voters in the party’s traditional rural strongholds, where resentment is growing that structural reforms pushed by Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, left them hurting, and lagging behind the urban regions.

Abe promised that the government would do its best to respond to their concerns.