National / Politics

Abe opens Diet session with call for social welfare reform for all generations

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set the tone for this year’s extraordinary Diet session with a pledge in his opening remarks to overhaul the nation’s social welfare system to create one beneficial for all generations.

“We will fearlessly push forward reform that will span the pension, medical, nursing, and labor systems,” he told lawmakers assembled in the Diet.

“We will create a social welfare system that will provide security to all generations — from young children to the old,” he added.

Although an overhaul of the social welfare system has regularly featured in Abe’s past speeches, this year he has focused specifically on the elderly and people with disabilities.

Early in the speech, he acknowledged lawmaker Yasuhiko Funago, a member of the opposition party Reiwa Shinsengumi who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), drawing applause, and renewed his commitment to a “dynamic engagement of all citizens.”

He also touched on planned reforms, including creating employment opportunities for the elderly until the age of 70, putting more weight into preventive care and expanding the scope of the employees’ pension plan to include more part-time and contract workers.

With a declining and graying population, social welfare reform is a top priority for the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The cost of social welfare is expected to balloon from ¥121 trillion in fiscal 2018 to up to ¥190 trillion in fiscal 2040 — all while the population declines.

“What is required of Japan in this new era is diversity,” Abe said in his speech, drawing raucous boos from opposition parties and exuberant cries of support from the ruling bloc.

The booing swelled to a crescendo at the word “diversity,” almost drowning out Abe’s voice. The criticism comes because the idea of diversity mentioned by Abe appears to focus solely on the elderly and people with disabilities. Abe did not touch on foreign workers at all, while women’s issues barely got a mention, highlighting the government’s focus for the coming months.

Foreign workers were in the spotlight in last year’s policy speech, as a new visa system allowing non-Japanese laborers into the country was set to be debated. Raising the profile of women in society has also been a constant theme in Abe’s policy speeches.

However, with only 20 people residing in Japan under the new visa system as of the end of June, and Japan consistently performing poorly in global gender parity rankings, the prime minister’s policies have left much to be desired in terms of achieving broader diversity.

Abe also touched on the bilateral trade agreement between Japan and the U.S., choosing his words carefully by saying that “an agreement has been reached.”

There had been word that the treaty would be signed in New York last month during the United Nations General Assembly, but the signing ceremony was then delayed, sparking concerns that there had been a snag in talks.

In his speech, Abe put on a brave face in attempting to assure the public that all was well with the treaty, saying “we were able to reach an agreement that is a win-win treaty for both parties.”

But this also drew boos and criticism from the opposition.

“Where are the details?” one lawmaker shouted.

Experts have noted that a written commitment from the U.S. on key issues has not been secured, raising questions about whether a commitment has actually been made.

Although the U.S. successfully negotiated moving tariffs on agricultural products imported into Japan to levels seen in the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Tokyo has not fully secured a deal on the gradual elimination of auto tariffs on cars exported to the U.S.

Abe has insisted that he has U.S. President Donald Trump’s word that a 25 percent tariff won’t be levied on Japanese car exports — which would be a significant blow to the domestic auto industry. However, the public has yet to see the details of that agreement or a signed deal.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, released a statement criticizing the agreement.

“Japan has undeniably had to make unfair compromises” regarding the treaty, the statement said.

“We will put pressure on the government to publicize the relevant information and explain the content of the treaty to both the Diet and the people of Japan,” read the statement, released by CDP lawmaker Seiji Osaka.

Abe concluded his speech with a call on the Diet to engage in “in-depth discussions” regarding constitutional revision.

“In this new Reiwa Era, let us work together toward creating a new country. What will guide us on this mission is the Constitution,” he said.

He continued: “Fellow lawmakers, let us fulfill our commitment to the people,” his voice rising to a crescendo amid the loudest jeers and cheers of the speech.

During the Diet session, the ruling bloc plans to submit a bill that would revise the referendum law, eliminating limits currently set on TV commercials promoting party policy and making voting easier.

But opposition parties say there are more pressing issues, such as the scandal involving Kansai Electric Power Co., which has revealed that its executives received money and gifts from the deputy mayor of a town that hosted one of its nuclear power plants.

Over the past year, the ruling bloc has tried to push forward discussions regarding constitutional revision — a career ambition for Abe and a key party issue since the founding of the LDP.

Opposition parties have refused to involve themselves in the discussions, however, by effectively boycotting the talks.