Employing a new catchword, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori opened the 72-day extra Diet session Thursday pledging to create an “e-Japan” that would enrich people’s lives and make the nation’s industries more competitive.
In his policy speech, Mori emphasized the need for fresh government spending to achieve a full economic recovery and subsequent sustainable growth.
He also expressed his intention to continue talks with North Korea on establishing diplomatic ties and hang on to negotiations with Russia on concluding a peace treaty. Mori delivered the speech before both the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors late in the afternoon.
The speech covered economic, social and diplomatic challenges as Mori attempted to show his vision for the 21st century in opening the “final Diet session of the 20th century.”
The main emphasis of the speech was on information technology.
All people “need to grab the historic opportunity of the IT revolution,” Mori said, restating the government’s goal of making Japan the world’s most advanced IT power in five years.
The government is hurrying to draft a national IT strategy that it hopes will lead to every citizen being able to share and exchange information through inexpensive, high-speed Internet connections, he added.
A government-appointed panel, headed by Nobuyuki Idei, chairman and CEO of Sony Corp., is tasked with fleshing out the strategy by November.
Mori also pledged to promote a “national movement” in line with the strategy, reflecting an idea proposed by panel members, including Keio University professor Heizo Takenaka.
The government intends to take steps to help people acquire basic computer skills and increase the number of Internet-connectable personal-computer terminals at public facilities. These measures will be included in an economic stimulus package to be announced by late October.
In the speech, Mori also promised to prepare bills for next year that would establish rules to protect privacy and security in electronic commerce. These bills will be in addition to the “IT Basic Bill,” which aims to create an electronic government and build broadband network infrastructure, to be submitted during the current Diet session.
On economic policies, Mori underlined the need for a fresh stimulus package centered on his four priority areas — IT, environmental protection, the aging population and urban infrastructure.
The rationale for the package is based on his view that although the “Japanese economy has been slowly improving since the spring last year . . . the employment situation is still severe, consumption is staggering and corporate bankruptcies remain at a high level.”
The package will include actual government spending of nearly 4 trillion yen, to be financed by a supplementary budget for the current fiscal year.
Regarding the nation’s debt-ridden public finances, he expressed caution against taking debt-reduction measures at a time when the economy is still not on a self-sustaining recovery path. He added that the government will “flexibly take fiscal stimulus measures and continue spending a limited amount until the economy recovers.”
But he stopped short of mapping out a concrete vision of how the government should rebuild its finances, which would inevitably require radical spending cuts and tax hikes.
On relations with North Korea, he said, “The government will persistently promote normalization talks and is fully committed to resolving humanitarian problems and security concerns.”
He was apparently referring to the disappearances in the 1970s and 1980s of Japanese citizens who were allegedly abducted by North Korean agents, as well as to Pyongyang’s missile potential.
Tokyo and Pyongyang held their 10th round of bilateral normalization talks in August, but little progress was made.
Mori also pledged to continue efforts to forge a peace treaty with Russia. Those efforts might include a visit to the country for further talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Mori and Putin held official talks early this month in Tokyo on Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan; no progress was made.
He also said the relationship with the United States is “increasingly important” for Japan and the bilateral security treaty must be made more credible for the peace of the entire Asia-Pacific region.
He called for early Diet approval of the recently renewed bilateral agreement on the host-nation support for U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
Mori also put forward his education reform proposals, including a controversial proposal to oblige students to perform community service. Education reform will be a key theme during next year’s regular Diet session, he said.
Leaders of the opposition parties were quick to criticize Mori’s speech for lacking a concrete vision of how Japan will be steered into the next century.
Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, said Mori failed to map out how he would review public works projects in a way that would directly reform the nation’s fiscal structure.
“He is just putting everything off,” Hatoyama said.
On diplomatic issues, Hatoyama criticized Mori for his optimism regarding the future of Japanese-Russian relations and negotiations over the long-standing territorial dispute over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
Takako Doi, leader of the Social Democratic Party, also censored the policy speech, saying the so-called IT revolution should be carried out on the initiative of private firms and individuals rather than left in the hands of the government.
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