Fukuda vows to regain public trust

Continuing MSDF duty also a key priority, Diet is told

by Hiroko Nakata

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Yasuo Fukuda delivers his first policy speech as prime minister in the House of Representatives on Monday. AP PHOTO
The scandals and the pension record debacle led to the ruling bloc's huge upset in the July Upper House election.The new prime minister said his diplomatic priorities are to continue Japan's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan, to resolve the Pyongyang abduction issue and to continue pushing for North Korea's denuclearization.Fukuda, 71, promised to engage the opposition camp now that the Democratic Party of Japan is the biggest force in the Upper House thanks to the July election.It was the first time Fukuda has presented his agenda in the Diet since he was elected prime minister Sept. 25. The extraordinary session had been suspended for almost three weeks after Abe abruptly announced Sept. 12, at the onset of the session, that he was stepping down.Fukuda's moderate, even dovish, tone is in sharp contrast to his nationalistic predecessor, who used ideological slogans such as "leaving behind the postwar regime" and advocated changing the pacifist Constitution. Fukuda made no mention in his speech of revising the Constitution or allowing Japan to engage in collective self-defense."Regaining trust in politics and the government is the – urgent issue,” Fukuda told the Diet in the 23-minute speech. “Without the people’s trust, it is impossible to realize any policy or necessary reforms.”

The remarks followed Fukuda’s warning to his Cabinet last week to keep their hands clean over political funds.

On foreign policy, Fukuda said maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance and cooperating with the international community is the basis of Japan’s diplomacy.

He said the most pressing issues are continuing the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s mission in the Indian Ocean and seeking an early resolution of the North Korean problems.

Fukuda said he will do his best to convince the public and lawmakers about the importance of continuing the MSDF mission, which expires Nov. 1, saying it is highly valued by other countries.

He also pledged to do everything in his power to gain the return of any Japanese abductees still in North Korea and then work to normalize diplomatic relations. While making no direct reference in his speech, Fukuda has called for engaging in dialogue with Pyongyang rather than simply resorting to sanctions, in contrast to Abe’s stance of putting more pressure on the North.

Fukuda is also advocating closer relations with China and South Korea. Historical issues have often strained Japan’s ties with its two neighbors.

The pro-China leader said he will contribute to regional peace and stability together with Beijing by establishing relations that benefit both countries based on common strategic interests. While campaigning for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency, Fukuda made it clear he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine.

He pledged in his speech to further reinforce trust with South Korea, strengthen the economic alliance with member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and work to resolve the territorial dispute with Moscow over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

Fukuda said it was “extremely regrettable” that a Japanese video journalist in Myanmar was slain, reportedly shot at point-blank range by a soldier during a crackdown on the democracy movement.

“I will promote active Asian diplomacy to let stability and growth take root” across Asia, he said.

On the economic front, Fukuda promised to continue structural reforms the government has been promoting since Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister in 2001.

“Reforms and a stable economy are two wheels of a car,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the rural-urban income disparity has widened because of structural reforms. He stressed he will not boost fiscal spending for public works but instead aim at tailor-made steps for each rural region.

On the pension record-keeping fiasco, another cause of the LDP-led ruling bloc’s defeat in the July election, Fukuda said it is important to check every citizen’s pension premium payment record to ensure benefit payments are correct.

But he did not state whether he will stick to Abe’s pledge that the government will finish sorting out the mismatch of 50 million pension payment records by March.

Fukuda, who indicated during the LDP presidential race that the consumption tax must be raised to pay for ballooning social security costs, did not mention Monday when a tax hike might take effect. He only said he will promptly open discussions to realize overall tax reforms, including the consumption tax.