Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday sounded the alarm over Japan’s “most severe security environment ever” in the postwar era, leading his key policy speech with a condemnation of nuclear-armed North Korea for the first time since he returned to power in December 2012.
Abe delivered his address in response to his ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s overwhelming victory in the Oct. 22 Lower House election and his subsequent re-election as prime minister earlier this month.
He spent the bulk of his speech assuring the nation of his intention to make good on a gamut of campaign promises, from maximizing pressure on a recalcitrant Pyongyang and providing free day care services to kick-starting stalled debate on revising the pacifist Constitution.
But his 3,500-word policy speech, the second-shortest since the current Heisei Era kicked off in 1989, stopped short of spelling out exactly how he plans to make those pledges a reality.
Friday marked the second consecutive time Abe broke with tradition by leading his policy speech with foreign affairs instead of the economy — after he played up his determination to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance as the first topic of his Diet address in January, just weeks before meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
This time around, Abe painted a grim picture of Japan’s changing security landscape.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say our security environment is at its severest point ever since the end of the war,” he told both chambers of the Diet, citing neighboring North Korea’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and the breakneck pace with which it has test-fired ballistic missiles throughout this year, including two that flew over southern Hokkaido in August and September.
Renewing his vow to further tighten screws on the regime, Abe vowed to hold a trilateral summit with China and South Korea “swiftly” to bolster a united front against Pyongyang, as well as promising to “take concrete actions” under the Japan-U.S. alliance and “strengthen our defense capabilities.”
Although Abe didn’t elaborate further on what those actions will be, the Maritime Self-Defense Force carried out a joint drill with the U.S. Navy in the Sea of Japan last Sunday that involved the participation of three carrier strike groups.
With an eye toward installing new anti-missile assets such as a land-based Aegis system known as Aegis Ashore, the Defense Ministry in August requested a record ¥5.26 trillion in funding for fiscal 2018.
As part of a new economic package he said will be compiled next month, Abe emphasized he will “make sweeping progress” in achieving free nursery covering “all” children aged between 3 and 5 — one of the key campaign promises he made under his mantra of overcoming Japan’s shrinking and aging population.
The topic stirred controversy soon after the election as reports emerged that the government — despite an LDP pledge to make free education possible for “all” children in that age group — was mulling disqualifying those admitted to unauthorized day care centers lest it be seen as endorsing facilities that don’t meet criteria set by authorities.
On Friday, Abe didn’t divulge any details on the envisaged free education program, although an LDP panel tasked with the matter reached a broad agreement Wednesday that an outright exclusion of unauthorized facilities from the government support program should be avoided.
Abe also reaffirmed his commitment to creating an additional 320,000 spots for child day care by fiscal 2020, as well as 500,000 places for elderly nursing care by the early 2020s.
Abe afforded his longtime dream of revising the Constitution only a perfunctory mention in his 15-minute speech, relegating it to the very end.
“Let’s rise above the boundary that separates the ruling camp from the opposition, and move forward with constructive discussions on policy,” he said. “By doing so, I am sure we can make progress in discussing constitutional revision.”
Abe’s drive to revise the U.S.-drafted charter seemingly gained fresh momentum when the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition successfully won a two-thirds majority in the Lower House election — a situation that now allows it to call a referendum on rewriting the supreme law.
His real wish is believed to be a revision of war-renouncing Article 9, which has played an integral role in shaping Japan’s postwar pacifist mentality, but observers are skeptical that he will have a go at the pivotal clause anytime soon, citing divided public sentiment.
Another key to success is his relationship with other parties.
Abe needs to convince Komeito, which has long maintained a cautious attitude toward changing Article 9, to get on board with his plan, while the No. 1 opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is dead-set against Abe’s bid to add a fresh paragraph to the clause to formalize the status of the SDF.
Kibo no To (Party of Hope), another opposition party, supports the idea of constitutional amendment, but its ability to stay united is now in question following the surprise resignation of its founder and president, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, earlier this week.