National / Politics

Abe underscores push to clean up Japan's postwar diplomatic rows in opening speech to Diet

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated before lawmakers on Wednesday his vow to put to rest Japan’s unresolved post-World War II diplomatic challenges, placing emphasis on ensuring the return of citizens abducted by North Korean agents and the signing of a peace treaty with Russia.

In his speech marking the start of this year’s 48-day extraordinary Diet session, Abe recycled the slogan — “summing up Japan’s postwar diplomacy” — that he had repeatedly trumpeted in his campaign in the run-up to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership election last month. The prime minister’s victory in the poll made it possible for him to serve another three years in office.

Abe also addressed growing criticism from opposition parties and the public over suggestions of hubris on his part, which they believe is the result of having led the country for over half a decade.

“I remain the same challenger that I was six years ago when I returned to power,” he said. “But at the same time, I will address concerns among the public that I might have grown arrogant because of my long stint in power.”

Still, the prime minister’s speech was mostly a repeat of the rosy campaign promises he made during the LDP election. During the address, he failed to flesh out details on how he would go about putting them into action.

Abe reiterated he is “determined not to miss out on any opportunity” to achieve the repatriation of Japanese abductees, saying he realizes “I’m the one who has to confront Kim Jong Un next” in the wake of the historic summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump in June.

Describing the failure to produce a Japan-Russia peace treaty more than 70 years after the end of the war as “an abnormal situation,” Abe pledged to end the disagreement with the Kremlin over the sovereignty of islands off Hokkaido claimed by both nations so the two can move toward signing such an accord.

Abe was blindsided last month when Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested at an economic forum in Vladivostok — off-the-cuff — that the two countries aim to unconditionally conclude the peace treaty by the end of this year.

Abe, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, later explained to Putin that Japan’s position remains that the territorial dispute must be resolved in order for the two nations to sign a treaty. Russia, according to the top spokesman, said it understood Japan’s stance.

In the speech, the prime minister also vowed to turn Japan into a hub of skilled foreign talent by overhauling its immigration law to bring in more foreign workers as the nation faces an acute labor shortage that is a threat to the economy.

Abe expressed enthusiasm for passing an amendment designed to create new visa statuses for blue-collar workers with specific skills — one of the biggest legislative highlights of this Diet session.

“We will create a Japan admired by the world, and a Japan where skilled human resources from all over the world converge,” he said.

The planned amendment calls for two new types of visas.

The first is for lower-skilled workers who can stay for up to five years but are not allowed to bring dependents with them from their home countries. The second status applies to more “seasoned” workers and would allow holders to bring family members and stay indefinitely, provided their visas are approved for renewal.

The government pointedly calls them “industry-ready individuals with certain technical knowledge and skills.”

Abe appeared to choose his words carefully in an apparent attempt to avoid having the framework be misconstrued as Japan formally opening itself up to an influx of foreign labor.

The prime minister told the Diet that the government will strengthen the monitoring of firms that recruit foreign workers under the new system and ensure they will be paid on par with Japanese employees.

Regarding the consumption tax hike slated for October next year, Abe said he will “implement all sorts of policies” to prevent a chilling effect on consumer spending when the levy increases from the current 8 percent to 10 percent.

He also called on “political parties to submit their own detailed proposals” to the Diet on how to revise the postwar Constitution, indirectly urging the LDP to put together and unveil its amendment proposal for lawmakers by the time the fall session wraps up in mid-December.

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