Abe opens Diet, skips hawkish rhetoric

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered his inaugural policy speech Monday to kick off the 150-day Diet session, focusing on how he will “revitalize” the economy but omitting his contentious, right-leaning diplomatic and historical rhetoric.

Abe emphasized his determination to overcome the country’s decades-old economic slump, reconstruct the disaster-hit Tohoku region, strengthen Japan’s security alliance with the United States and enhance diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia.

“The biggest and most urgent agenda item for our country is revitalization of the economy,” Abe said in the speech.

“I will focus most on the economic revitalization because I believe prolonged deflation and appreciation of the yen’s value have rocked the foundation of the social belief that ‘people who work hard will be rewarded.’ ”

Monday’s speech was in sharp contrast to the policy speech he gave in 2006 when launching his first Cabinet, when he revealed his ambition to revise the postwar Constitution and discussed the historical, cultural and traditional values of Japan.

Abe steered clear of these themes Monday, including his widely known wish to revise the government’s interpretation of the pacifist Constitution to allow the Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense with the United States.

Since taking office in December, Abe has maintained a low profile on security issues, apparently trying to avoid worsening the diplomatic rows with China and South Korea over various islands.

In Monday’s speech, he didn’t specifically mention China or South Korea but said he is determined “to firmly keep defending (the) people’s lives and properties and the nation’s land, seas and skies,” and “make all-out efforts” to strengthen the nation’s control of remote islands near national borders.

Opposition lawmakers are expected to grill Abe over his views on Japan’s wartime responsibilities, as he earlier hinted that he might seek to revise the 1993 government statement that admitted that Japanese authorities bore responsibility for forcing Asian women and girls to serve as sex slaves at wartime military brothels by the thousands.

He didn’t touch on historical issues Monday.

Abe will deliver another policy speech on March 1, when he might bring up some of the sensitive issues he avoided Monday.

“The point (of Monday’s speech) is on what he is aiming for and trying to do right now,” a senior government official said.

Abe pledged to promote three economy-boosting measures: aggressive credit-easing by the Bank of Japan; massive government spending to stimulate the economy; and incentives for theprivate sector to increase investments and thereby realize sustainable economic growth.

“(The government) won’t be able to keep taking fiscal actions forever. We will draw up and implement a growth strategy to realize sustainable expansion of private investment and consumption,” Abe said.

He also pledged to achieve “fiscal rehabilitation” over the “medium-to-long term.” But he didn’t provide a specific target date for when the heavily indebted government will achieve a surplus in the primary budget balance — a gauge of fiscal sustainability.

“The biggest crisis Japan is facing is the fact that the Japanese people have lost confidence,” Abe said. “I want to ask every single citizen who is listening to this speech: Let us regain pride and confidence in ourselves.”

For the opposition parties, the six-month Diet session will be a long race to woo voters ahead of the July Upper House election.

Banri Kaieda, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, told his fellow lawmakers the same day that this year’s Upper House election will be a critical contest.

“The fate of our party hinges on this ordinary Diet session,” Kaieda said. The DPJ was roundly ousted from power in the Lower House election in December at the hands of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which came charging back.

In the 2009 general election, it was a reversal of fortune as the DPJ trounced the long-ruling LDP on a mantra of “change.”