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Abe pledges more robust defense strategy for Japan in annual policy speech to lawmakers

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

In his annual policy speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Monday to adopt a more muscular defense policy while easing off from his usual praise for South Korea following the recent diplomatic flap over the 2015 “comfort women” agreement.

Abe delivered the speech in both houses of the Diet at the kickoff of this year’s ordinary legislative session, which is slated to continue through mid-June.

He reiterated the need for Japan to bolster its defense capabilities amid the “increasingly severe” security environment, citing North Korea’s escalating military provocations.

Abe repeated his recent vow that the government will “not follow precedent” in updating the national defense program guideline, last revised in December 2013, toward the end of this year.

“Based on the premise that our exclusively defense-oriented posture will remain intact, we will calibrate what defense capabilities are truly needed to protect our citizens, instead of just following precedent,” Abe said.

Last year saw North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats reach an unprecedented level, fueled by the test-firing of two ballistic missiles that flew over northern Japan and development of what it claims to be an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Abe’s Cabinet, meanwhile, approved a record ¥5.19 trillion draft defense budget last month highlighting the introduction of two Aegis Ashore interceptor batteries and Japan’s first long-range cruise missiles mountable on fighter jets.

“By ushering in Aegis Ashore batteries and standoff missiles, we will beef up our defense capabilities,” Abe said.

In another striking feature of the annual speech, Abe ditched his traditional description of South Korea as Japan’s “most important neighbor” for the first time since he returned to office in December 2012.

It’s not clear what the intention of the rhetorical shift was, but the government has been furious over calls from Seoul for a “voluntary and sincere” apology over the girls and women forced to provide sex at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

South Korea’s latest action on the comfort women issue was viewed widely by Japanese officials as effectively reneging on the historic bilateral pact they signed in 2015 to resolve the dispute “finally and irreversibly.”

“With South Korean President Moon Jae-in, I would like to harness a future-oriented, cooperative relationship going forward, based on our international promises to date and mutual trust we have built together,” Abe said.

On China, Abe said Japan will “steadily improve our friendship from a comprehensive standpoint,” noting this year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China.

This year will also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. Abe’s speech was peppered with references to the historic revolution synonymous with Japan’s drive to modernize and strengthen the military in the face of Western powers.

Abe led off his speech by lauding how the Meiji government successfully battled the “national crisis” posed by the advance of world powers by employing a wide variety of human talent, likening this to his own efforts to combat Japan’s rapidly shrinking and aging population.

“In emulation of our descendants from the Meiji Era, we can overcome” the demographic crisis, Abe said, adding “now is time to renew our nation.”

Abe stressed that during this Diet session he will seek an overhaul of Japan’s traditional labor system notorious for overwork and unfair treatment of temporary and part-time workers. He said it will mark the first major labor law reform in 70 years.

He reasserted his pledges from last year’s general election to provide free day care and nursery schools, create more spots in day care centers and increase wages for caregivers.

On the Constitution, Abe stressed the need for more active discussions on revision. He urged political parties to submit their own amendment proposals in the months ahead. Revising the U.S.-drafted Constitution, particularly war-renouncing Article 9, is his longtime ambition.

Although the lack of a scheduled national election this year provides a window of opportunity for Abe to take a decisive step toward constitutional revision, public sentiment is largely skewed against his stated bid to alter Article 9, with a recent Kyodo News poll showing 54.8 percent oppose a change under Abe.