National / Politics

Abe squares off with opposition leaders ahead of Upper House election

by Tomohiro Osaki and Sakura Murakami

Staff Writers

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a debate with opposition leaders on Wednesday that he will go ahead with the planned sales tax hike in October but vehemently denied there will be further increases while he remains in power.

Although rumors that Abe might postpone the tax hike have died down, with an Upper House election in less than three weeks, questions have been raised over whether there might be further tax hikes.

At the debate, where leaders of major political parties faced off in Tokyo, Abe gave a firm no to this scenario.

“The Abe administration is not at all considering raising the tax rate (over 10 percent),” he told a moderator when asked whether there may be another hike given the high costs of social welfare programs.

A good portion of the two-hour debate at the Japan National Press Club was spent discussing Japan’s pension system, a recent hot topic following outrage over a controversial Financial Services Agency report that estimated ¥20 million in savings might be needed to sustain post-retirement lives for average elderly pensioners.

Some opposition leaders questioned the efficacy of the “macroeconomic slide” system, which was introduced as part of a 2004 pension reform to reduce payout levels as the size of the working-age population falls and average life expectancy increases.

Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party, insisted the macroeconomic slide will ultimately reduce the pension payment standards to a critically low level.

Abe, however, defended the framework, saying there is no “magic” that would automatically increase payouts and asserting that without it, Japan will be “depleted of pension reserves.”

On the Constitution, Abe doubled down on his commitment to explicitly acknowledge the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces — Japan’s de facto military — to eliminate longstanding arguments among some scholars that the SDF violates war-renouncing Article 9. “Explicitly defining the existence of the SDF in the Constitution will form the foundation of national defense,” Abe said.

The July election will see political parties contest 124 seats up for grabs, about half of the Upper House’s 245 seats. On Wednesday, Abe reiterated that his so-called victory line in the election would be for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition to keep a majority of the seats, or 123.

This means Abe’s ruling bloc, which already controls 70 seats in the uncontested half, would need to win 53 in total. “I’d like to be sure to win enough seats so that at least half of the seats in the Upper House, including those that are not going to be up for re-election, will be under control of the ruling bloc,” Abe said during the debate.

But critics see it as a rather unambitious goal that appears to have been set deliberately low to keep Abe from losing face after the vote — and therefore stave off any calls for his resignation. Even Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of the LDP, appears unconvinced of the validity of Abe’s goal, reportedly saying last week in an interview with domestic media outlets that he believes the ruling camp should win at least 63 seats in total, or a majority of the 124 up for grabs.

Throughout the two-hour debate, Abe mostly maintained his composure and took in stride questions from opposition leaders and reporters. His main adversary was Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, whom he criticized for tying up with other opposition parties, including the leftist JCP, so they can unify candidates in some single-seat districts.

Abe said the tactic, meant to prevent a split of anti-Abe forces among opposition parties, is “disingenuous” for voters because, for instance, Edano’s CDP fundamentally differs from the JCP on some crucial issues. The JCP, Abe said, still stands by the position that the SDF, which forms the foundation of Japan’s national security, is unconstitutional.

Abe prodded Edano to put himself in the shoes of voters in Fukui Prefecture, where a JCP-backed candidate has been positioned to run in the July 21 election as a result of the opposition tie-up.

Abe asked: “If you’re a Fukui resident, would you still vote for the JCP candidate?”

Acknowledging that opposition parties are dogged by discrepancies in terms of some policies, Edano said it’s “the reality of an election” that voters would sometimes have to choose among candidates they don’t completely agree with. But, he said, candidates unified by opposition parties at least share the basic stance that they are against the Abe government’s controversial security laws, which have significantly expanded the legal scope of the overseas operations of the SDF.

Abe, however, went on the defensive when the topic veered toward the favoritism scandal that involved nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen. His dismay was further intensified when a reporter bombarded leaders on stage with a series of simple yes-or-no questions on controversial issues and urged them to raise their hands if they agreed.

When asked if they think Japan should allow women to ascend the imperial throne, refrain from building new nuclear power plants and legalize dual-surnames for married couples, Abe stood out from the others by not raising his hand throughout. Some of his debate opponents showed support for the ideas. They did remain cautious, however, over whether to allow female members of the imperial family to pass down the throne to their children, with only the JCP’s Shii and Social Democratic Party representative Hajime Yoshikawa expressing support.