Fukuda, Ozawa hold first Diet faceoff

Opposition leader jabs away on pension records, antiterrorism bill

by Setsuko Kamiya

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda maintained his humble tone Wednesday in his first one-on-one debate with Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa.

During the nearly 50-minute “question time,” in which the prime minister and the leader of the largest opposition party met face to face to wrangle over political issues, Ozawa spent more than 30 minutes pressing the pension fiasco and the rest of the time on the antiterrorism bill that would allow the Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

“There is a feeling of discontent and anxiety among the Japanese public, and one of the largest issues triggering this is the pension issue, because it concerns people lives very closely,” Ozawa said in his opening volley during a Lower House panel session.

The DPJ leader took his time and talked about how his party has been pointing out problems in the Social Insurance Agency and how it revealed the SIA’s mishandling of pension records.

Prior to the Upper House election last July, the Cabinet of Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, drew up a plan to match the 50 million unidentified records with their recipients by March 31 and touted this as a campaign pledge. The DPJ won a historic victory and since has been the most powerful force in the chamber.

After the agency admitted in late December it is having a difficult time identifying some 19.75 million of the 50 million records, Fukuda commented that “it was an exaggeration to call it a breach of a pledge.”

Opinion polls soon after this showed a decline in Fukuda’s support, and he quickly offered an apology.

“You have apologized and that in itself was fine, but apologizing won’t solve anything,” Ozawa said as he asked how much money the lost 50 million records are worth.

“I also had the same question, but it’s difficult to calculate how much this is,” Fukuda said, adding that he can only apologize for how terribly the records were handled but that rectifying the situation is progressing.

“At this point, it is important to continue trying to figure out the nearly 19.75 million records, whose numbers will eventually be reduced. It’s better to wait until then to calculate how much damage it has cost the public,” he said.

Fukuda, who explained the issue rather than debate it, said the government is planning to send out a notice on pension records every year starting in April 2009.

But the tone of the session changed slightly when Ozawa turned the subject to the antiterrorism bill.

Ozawa, who opposes the bill, has repeatedly said that the U.S.-led Enduring Freedom-Maritime Interdiction Operation is not officially authorized by the United Nations, making Japanese participation unconstitutional.

The divided Diet has made it difficult for the ruling bloc to pass the bill, and Fukuda has extended the current Diet session twice to ensure the legislation gets through.