Breaking with precedent, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday removed from his annual policy speech a paragraph outlining his vision for Japan’s ties with South Korea, in a possible reflection of the neighbors’ increasingly tumultuous relationship.
On the day that marked the opening of this year’s 150-day regular Diet session, Abe delivered his seventh policy speech since his return to power in December 2012. In the speech Abe afforded South Korea only a passing reference, as he stressed the importance of “closely coordinating with the international community, in particular Washington and Seoul,” to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea.
The speech — delivered each year at the start of the ordinary Diet session — was a departure from previous policy addresses that have seen Abe dedicate a whole paragraph detailing his desire to promote what he had often called “future-oriented” relations with Seoul.
The intention behind the omission was unclear, but Abe’s speech came on the heels of surging tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.
Late last year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that several Japanese companies must compensate South Koreans over wartime forced labor, sparking stern protest from Japanese officials. Tokyo also said earlier this month that it would discontinue working-level talks with Seoul over the flare-up of a so-called “radar lock-on” spat, after both sides failed to reconcile amid weeks of recriminations.
To be sure, Abe’s shifting rhetoric on South Korea was already evident in his speech last January, when he jettisoned the conventional description of the country as Japan’s “most important” neighbor.
At the time, Abe’s administration had been furious over South Korea’s sudden demand for an apology over wartime “comfort women” — a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
Tokyo saw the move as Seoul’s effective desertion of a 2015 bilateral agreement that had been said to resolve the long-standing issue “finally and irreversibly.”
As part of his push to “settle Japan’s post-war diplomacy” conundrum, Abe’s speech also saw him reiterate an eagerness to “accelerate” talks with Russia to solve a territorial dispute that has festered since the end of World War II and sign a formal peace treaty.
He emphasized that “President (Vladimir) Putin and I have shared the strong belief that we have to put an end to this matter before the turn of a generation” — although Abe pocketed little from his meeting last week with the Russian leader in Moscow.
The prime minister also said his trip to Beijing last October, the first official visit since returning to power, “completely put Sino-Japanese relations back on their normal trajectory,” renewing his vow to take the Asian giants’ bilateral ties to a “new stage.”
On North Korea, Abe said he will “break the shell of mutual mistrust” and pledged “decisive” action to achieve the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s. “I won’t miss out on any opportunity,” he said, adding that he is open to meet Kim Jong Un face-to-face. His goal, Abe said, is to “settle the unfortunate history with North Korea and normalize diplomatic relations.”
On the domestic front, Abe apologized for the recent emergence of a data mismanagement scandal within the labor ministry, assuring the public of a “swift” and “smooth” refund of employment-related benefits that went underpaid as a result of the error-laden statistics.
The yearslong lapses, which date back to 2004, “undermine trust in the public safety net system,” Abe acknowledged, vowing to conduct a “thorough review of what happened to restore trust in government statistics.”
Opposition parties have already seized on the data scandal, fiercely criticizing what is shaping up to be a potential headache for the Abe administration despite hopes for a scandal-free Diet session ahead of July’s pivotal Upper House election.
Abe, meanwhile, doubled down on his commitment to forge ahead with a legally bound consumption tax hike set for this October — something he had already delayed twice — from the current 8 percent to 10 percent.
But, apparently mindful of the July poll, the prime minister sought to impress on the public economic progress he claimed was made by his “ever-evolving Abenomics” program. Highlighting it as the first policy topic in the speech, Abe cited figures he says point to increased tax revenues and dwindling child poverty.
He also made sure to remind voters that the impact of the tax hike will be mitigated by measures, including special coupons, and that part of revenue from the 2 percentage-point raise will be used to finance free preschool education for children aged 3 to 5.
“After realizing nine-year, free education, covering elementary through junior high schools, this will be the first major educational reform in 70 years,” Abe said.
As usual, the prime minister relegated his longtime ambition of amending the Constitution to the very end of his speech, merely expressing hopes that “each political party will deepen discussions” at a Diet panel tasked with debating revision — apparently to avoid inviting too much attention and scrutiny to the highly divisive topic.
Monday’s policy speech was the last such address before the current Heisei Era ends on April 30 when Emperor Akihito is set to abdicate.
In previous policy speeches at the start of the ordinary Diet session, Abe either began or concluded his address with anecdotes commending prominent historical figures.
This year, however, he took the opportunity to pay tribute to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, reflecting on how the pair diligently took it upon themselves to visit areas decimated by natural disasters and to encourage local residents to persevere.
“Heisei is an era that demonstrated the resilience of the Japanese people, and how powerful their bonds with each other can become,” Abe said.