National / Politics

Abe grilled at Diet on new visa statuses and upcoming tax hike

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

In his first parliamentary face-off Monday with party leaders in the fall session that kicked off last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was questioned on topics ranging from the intended creation of new visa statuses to the postwar Constitution and the consumption tax hike slated for next year.

Abe elaborated on his earlier suggestions that Japan’s intended acceptance of blue-collar foreign workers in labor-hungry sectors does not equate to the nation opening up to immigrants, citing the narrow scope of eligible workers and a fixed period of their stay.

But noting that the planned amendment of the immigration control law will effectively pave the way for an inflow of foreign workers engaging in a raft of short-handed, “menial” jobs, Yukio Edano, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, pressed Abe to provide a better explanation for the claim.

Abe reiterated that the envisioned legal revision fundamentally differs from a policy of admitting a sizable number of foreign workers indefinitely.

In contrast, the planned amendment applies “exclusively to sectors truly in need” of foreign labor and accepts “only those deemed industry-ready individuals with certain technical knowledge and skills for a limited period of time,” he said. Two visa statuses currently under consideration allow eligible workers to stay for up to five years or otherwise require periodical renewal for longer-term residency.

Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, took issue with the lack of specifics in the amendment.

Although labor-hungry sectors thought most likely to be covered by the new visa system include construction, agriculture and nursing, a list of eligible sectors will be finalized only after the law clears the Diet, via ministerial ordinance. The government, Tamaki said, has yet to provide a clear estimate of the overall scope of foreign influx under the new visas, let alone the extent to which it will burden the nation’s health care system.

The scope of the incoming population and an impact on the medical insurance system “still remain under scrutiny,” Abe said.

Abe also doubled down on his commitment to revising the postwar Constitution, set to be a key topic of debate in this extraordinary session. Abe said eliminating constitutional doubt on the status of the Self-Defense Forces through a rewrite of war-renouncing Article 9 — his pet proposal — is a matter that “affects the foundation of our national security.”

Abe’s renewed vow to amend the supreme law was made in response to a question by former defense minister and close Abe ally Tomomi Inada, who debuted as a questioner representing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Inada’s choice was a stunning break from the party’s long-held tradition that had customarily seen only the top echelon of its ranks, in roles such as secretary-general or policy chief, be tapped for the honor of addressing the prime minister, apparently underscoring the LDP’s push to further Abe’s “womenomics” policy.

Inada, currently serving as the LDP’s chief deputy secretary general and widely regarded as a historical revisionist, asked Abe about the status of Japan’s relationship with South Korea. Among the issues she cited was the latest spat over Seoul’s request that Tokyo remove the war-linked Rising Sun flag from its Maritime Self-Defense Force ship at an international fleet review that took place earlier this month in South Korea. Tokyo skipped the event over the row.

Abe said such an action by Seoul, along with a visit last week by a group of South Korean lawmakers to Seoul-controlled but Tokyo-claimed islets in the Sea of Japan, “runs counter to efforts to harness future-oriented relationships and is very regrettable.”

Opposition leaders were also critical of measures eyed by the government to mitigate the impact of a consumption tax hike scheduled for October next year, set to lift the levy from the current 8 percent to 10 percent. While the government mulls introducing a reduced tax rate of 8 percent on daily necessities, such as food and newspapers, alcohol beverages and dining out will be levied at the higher 10 percent rate, causing potential confusion for consumers, they said.

The government’s plan to afford consumers a 2 percent refund via credit cards, Edano said, will burden smaller-sized retailers, many of whom are still dependent on cash payments, with the cost of installing cashless system, while “marginalizing” lower-income consumers ineligible for credit cards.

Abe, without directly answering Edano’s question, said the government will “implement all sorts of policies and do its utmost to minimize an adverse effect on our economy.”