Focus to move from Constitution to rural economies

Abe to shift gears as Diet session kicks off


Staff Writer

After drawing a storm of criticism and causing controversy with his Cabinet’s reinterpretation of the Constitution earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party now look ready to avoid contentious security issues and refocus on revitalizing rural economies during the extraordinary Diet session that starts Monday.

The 63-day session, expected to wrap up Nov. 30, is likely to be smooth sailing for Abe, who has pushed back the submission of controversial security and defense related bills to next year, including legislation related to the constitutional reinterpretation to allow Japan to exercise collective self-defense.

The postponement apparently underlined Abe’s determination to avoid any political rows that could damage the LDP-led ruling coalition’s campaign for upcoming nationwide local elections next spring, as well as gubernatorial elections in Fukushima next month and in Okinawa in November.

“The reshuffled Abe Cabinet will continue to prioritize regeneration of the nation’s economy, and we’d like to take initiatives in proceeding with regional rejuvenation as well as realizing a society where women can shine,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular news conference Friday.

Abe’s aims to help battered rural economies whose communities face rapid depopulation. Experts warn hundreds of municipalities could “disappear” in the future if the central government remains unable to push up the overall birth rate while stemming population outflows to urban areas.

Other government-sponsored bills include one to promote the status of women in both the private and public sectors. Abe’s government has set a goal to increase the number of female executives to 30 percent in every business sector by 2030.

The bill will likely oblige major companies to disclose the number of females in key management positions and to draw up plans to increase the ratio of female workers.

To help reinvigorate rural economies, the government plans to introduce a bill that will call for basic strategies to be compiled for each regional economy.

The Japan Policy Council, a Tokyo-based think tank, estimated in May that due to rapid depopulation, roughly half of Japan’s municipalities will face “extinction” by 2040.

“We are really in a crisis. . . . It’s not like if we can’t do it now, we can do it next year or the year after that,” Shigeru Ishiba, the new minister in charge of regional economies, told LDP members Tuesday.

Due by the end of this year, the government is set to draw up a road map outlining measures to tackle the depopulation of rural regions through 2020.

It also intends to compile a long-term vision for the next 50 years in order to maintain a population of around 100 million.

The government also plans to create a number of special economic areas in which various rules and regulations, such as those involving medical services and the introduction of foreign domestic helpers, will be removed on an experimental basis.

LDP members say Abe’s ultra-aggressive monetary easing policy has made a promising start by improving corporate performance and pushing up share prices. But those positive effects have only been seen in the capital and major cities, they note.

“When we go to the provinces, people say they haven’t seen the effect of ‘Abenomics,’ ” Takeo Kawamura, chairman of the LDP’s regional revitalization committee, said, referring to the prime minister’s package of economic policies.

But Abe’s vocal call to aid rural economies is already causing concerns that “revitalization” measures could just end up becoming budgets for huge public works projects, the LDP’s traditional election campaign tool of choice to raise votes and funds.

“Making energetic and abundant rural regions is the signature policy of the Abe Cabinet. . . . I believe it will have an enormous impact on the nationwide local elections” next spring, LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said Tuesday.

To play down such concerns, Abe said his government will not simply “spread money around” the regional economies, as was case with past LDP-led pork-barrel politics. Local communities and governments are the ones who need to come up with ideas to make their respective municipalities more attractive, he said.

“We will provide support while carefully listening to opinions in local communities, and respecting regional characteristics. We will not adopt an approach of fitting regions into frameworks set out by the (central) government,” Abe said.

Abe also hopes to pass a bill to legalize casinos that was submitted last December by a cross-party group of lawmakers as a way to boost tourism. But members of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, which was formerly known as New Komeito is divided over the issue due to concerns of a potential deterioration in security in the communities that would host casinos.

Meanwhile, opposition parties remain divided and far from ready to band together to take on the Abe administration.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan is focusing its efforts especially on blocking further labor deregulation, which it says would adversely affect temporary workers dispatched from personnel agencies.

A planned government-sponsored bill would remove the current three-year limit on dispatching temporary workers to the same job, enabling companies to continue using such staff for much longer instead of hiring full-time employees.

DPJ President Banri Kaieda said the bill would see more women and young people stuck in temporary jobs that are more insecure and less well-paid than regular workers, which runs contrary to Abe’s stated policy of promoting the prominence of women in business.

Other opposition parties, such as Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), Your Party, and Jisedai no To (Party for Future Generations), said they will not oppose every government bill or policy simply because they are in the opposition. Instead, they plan to support government policies that match their own beliefs.