Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kicked off the extraordinary Diet session Monday by delivering a key policy speech in which he pledged to prop up declining provincial economies, while apparently signaling his willingness to improve relations with China.

Abe devoted most of his speech to discussing various ideas to help rural areas suffering from depopulation ahead of nationwide local elections next spring.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is also facing gubernatorial elections in Fukushima Prefecture next month and Okinawa Prefecture in November.

The Diet session will run 63 days, into November.

“Problems facing provincial areas are serious, such as depopulation and a largely elderly population,” Abe told lawmakers during the Lower House plenary session. “We will promote the creation of towns, people and jobs that are attractive to young people.”

To help rural areas, Abe pledged to further promote foreign tourism to Japan. His administration will continue to ease visa regulations, increase the number of duty-free shops and allow some local governments to train tourist guides with foreign-language skills, Abe said.

The 16-page text of Abe’s speech mentioned China-Japan relations in only one paragraph, in which he expressed his wish to “build up a friendly relationship,” a rather unusual phrase for the prime minister.

Often described as a hawk, Abe has usually avoided using the phrase “friendly relationship” in speaking about China, saying instead that the two countries should enjoy a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.”

Abe has been unable to meet with top Chinese leaders one on one since taking office in December 2012. But in recent weeks, he has been exploring ways to arrange a summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in November.

The use of the new phrase in his speech could be signaling Abe’s willingness to improve ties with Beijing.

Opposition parties slammed the speech as lacking content and criticized Abe for avoiding issues the public really wants to hear.

“It was a sloppy speech. It was like reading something from a blog,” said Banri Kaieda, president of the Democratic Party of Japan. “Throughout the speech, he didn’t touch on the subjects the Japanese people truly worry about such as prospects of the economy, employment issues, and the right to collective self-defense.

“I guess he wants to hide issues that are disadvantageous for him,” Kaieda said, adding that he plans to question Abe about the realities the administration appears to be ignoring, such as the poverty single mothers face.

Yorishisa Matsuno, head of the Diet caucus of Nippon Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), criticized Abe for his plan to make a decision in December — after the Diet session closes — on the second stage of raising the consumption tax rate to 10 percent from 8 percent.

“It’s outrageous to make a decision about the tax hike when the Diet is closed. The Diet is the gathering of people who represent the citizens,” Matsuno said. “It should be fully discussed in the Diet. The decision should be made after having full discussions.”

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