Leaders of the ruling and opposition camps engaged in their first televised debate Tuesday ahead of the July 11 Upper House election, offering different takes on the crucial but politically unpopular topic of raising the consumption tax.

While Prime Minister Naoto Kan, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, emphasized the need to increase revenues to curb the snowballing national debt, opposition forces were quick to strike back.

Kan has proposed nonpartisan discussions on overhauling the tax system after the Upper House campaign. He has also made favorable comments regarding the proposal by the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, to hike the 5 percent consumption tax to 10 percent.

“If we don’t need to raise it, that would be better. But there is the fact that we are issuing government bonds” to make ends meet, Kan said.

The opposition camp slammed Kan for suddenly floating the tax hike idea before forming a formal consensus within his party. But the prime minister countered by saying the growing debt needs a quick resolution.

“We will continue our efforts to cut wasteful spending,” he said during the two-hour debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo. “But we will also come up with strong schemes,” including tax refunds for low-income households, he added, again triggering an opposition backlash.

While the LDP favors hiking the consumption tax to 10 percent, party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki criticized Kan for what he called the DPJ’s slipshod approach.

“Their proposal was made without any thorough discussions within the DPJ,” he said.

New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi also denounced Kan, saying the DPJ had previously said no tax hike would be necessary for at least four years.

“Prime Minister Kan must apologize for the failed pledge before putting forward his plan to raise taxes,” he said.

Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe meanwhile fired off the claim that the plan to hike the consumption tax to 10 percent was hatched by bureaucrats, not the DPJ. “The DPJ failed to strip the bureaucrats’ power over politics, as promised,” Watanabe said.

On foreign policy, Kan said he will follow through with the agreement reached with Washington to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa.

While he pledged to alleviate the prefecture’s burden of hosting U.S. bases, he reiterated that ties between the U.S. and Japan provide peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

The LDP’s Tanigaki was quick to fire back, saying Kan lacks foreign policy backbone.

“I have strong concerns, since Mr. Kan originally questioned the relevance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance but then quickly changed his position,” Tanigaki said.

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