Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, a rare outspoken critic of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe within the Liberal Democratic Party, unveiled Friday a set of policies that offer formidable alternatives to those of the prime minister, especially in the areas of diplomacy and security.

“I am hoping to devote myself to discussing various policies, whether that would be the novel coronavirus response or the economy … through this presidential election,” Ishiba said during a news conference.

The 63-year-old Tottori native, who was once the regional revitalization minister from 2015 to 2016 under the Abe administration, identifies invigorating regional economies as one of his key policy pillars.

Ishiba pledged to appoint a special minister who would be responsible for diffusing Tokyo’s overconcentration and promoting the movement of roughly 3 million people to the countryside by the mid-21st century, by broadening the adoption of telework and facilitating the relocation of government agencies. He additionally hopes to create a government agency dedicated to disaster prevention and response.

To deal with the novel coronavirus, the former defense chief vowed to upgrade legislation under which temporary closure requests are issued to businesses to include enhanced powers of enforcement and provision for compensation. Under the current legislation, a “request” can be issued for a business to suspend operations but there is no way to enforce it in law.

Ishiba adopted a more hawkish stance on constitutional amendment — advocating for a revision drafted by the party in 2012 that would delete a clause under Article 9 repudiating Japan’s authority to hold land, sea and air forces and its right of belligerency.

On foreign affairs, Ishiba stresses greater cooperation with like-minded Asian countries, stating that he would establish a collective defense body equivalent to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba speaks at a news conference on Friday in Tokyo. | KYODO
Former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba speaks at a news conference on Friday in Tokyo. | KYODO

He also said he would “unfold diplomacy that sincerely faces the history in Asia, and endeavor to build trust with Asian nations, including China, South Korea and North Korea.” The approach is in contrast with that of Abe, which involved confrontation with South Korea and expanding maximum pressure toward North Korea.

Ishiba added that the nation’s assertions over territorial disputes and wartime labor have been correct, but that the country needs to have a firm grasp on its history with Asian countries in order to seek understanding from them.

“I don’t believe Japan will be able to carry out its diplomacy without greater understanding from Asia,” he said. “It is in Japan’s interests to face Asia sincerely from the standpoint of carrying out our diplomacy as we stand, in between the United States and China.”

This will be Ishiba’s fourth bid for LDP leadership. His blunt commentary on the administration’s responses to a series of scandals and policies have made him an uncomfortable figure for some in the party, causing him to be left out in the cold.

Like Fumio Kishida, the party’s policy council chairman and fellow candidate in the current leadership race, Ishiba is struggling to expand his support base beyond his 19-member caucus. Five out of seven mainstream factions have endorsed Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the third entrant in the race and its front-runner.

The electoral process also stands in Ishiba’s way as well, since the party decided to adopt an emergency process, skipping votes from rank-and-file members.

As they have tended to support him more in the past, that’s likely to work against him. In the 2018 LDP presidential election, in which Ishiba challenged Abe in a one-on-one fight, he won more than 40 percent of non-lawmaker votes.

Nevertheless, his persistence and candidness have been embraced as an asset that draws support from beyond the LDP’s base. He is well received and has been cited as the No. 1 pick to succeed Abe in multiple media polls.

With a manner serving to soften a demeanor that could be described as stone-faced, he often engages in exchanges with light-hearted humor.

When a reporter asked him to share his thoughts about “cavities” in Japan — an apparent euphemism for problems facing the country — after he finished his weekly dental check-up Thursday, he responded, “things would get worse if one were to skip a regular check-up.”

During the 55-minute news conference Friday, Ishiba made direct eye-contact with reporters and deployed a commanding tone as he pitched his policies.

His policy platform states that he would maintain the current Abenomics macroeconomic policies, to prevent a recurrence of deflation, but would promote fiscal discipline — contrasting him with Suga, who has said he would maintain the economic blueprint handed down by the current prime minister.

Ishiba also made clear he would seek an economic transition that emphasizes domestic demand, spreading profits to regional areas to bridge the gap with the metropolis.

“I’m going to retain the good parts of Abenomics,” he said. “Reducing the wealth gap would lead to economic expansion.”

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