In his first Diet policy speech Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga presented his grand plan for the nation, doubling down on domestic policy commitments in which he is actively invested while signaling that in foreign affairs he would rely partially on the blueprint developed by his predecessor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Speaking before lawmakers, Suga recited a laundry list of projects on which he is eager to deliver now that he is at the country’s helm: stimulating the local economy through a combination of agricultural reform and tourism, promoting digitalization and making infertility treatment available under national health insurance, in a bid to curb the declining birthrate.
On the other hand, Suga has relied on strategies inherited from Abe to set out Japan’s foreign policy under the new administration. Although he has made minor changes in language, the overall tone as he described bilateral relations with prominent Asian countries, the United States and Russia did not diverge notably from that of his former boss.
“Regarding the reforms that we’ve promised you up until this point … we’re going to work on those we can now do, as soon as possible, so that you will see results,” Suga said.
“Since the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power, we’ve dealt with various everyday challenges to resuscitate the economy and rebuild diplomacy and national security. For the future, we’re going to inherit reform efforts in various areas and, based on that, we will work toward new growth.”
The prime minister’s first policy speech marked the beginning of an extraordinary Diet session set to run through Dec. 5. It included a series of proposals shaped to demonstrate long-term goals, indicating his intent to remain in power beyond next September, when Abe’s term was set to complete, and position himself as more than a caretaker prime minister.
The speech was largely devoid of the anecdotes and quotes from historical figures that have peppered past prime ministers’ policy speeches. Rather than incorporating the words of others, Suga insisted on using his own to portray the vision he intends to deliver, according to a senior government official familiar with the writing of the policy speech.
While overall his address repeated policy proposals he had announced already, Suga also officially unveiled Japan’s new commitment to go carbon neutral by 2050, incorporating the objective into larger ambitions of promoting environment-friendly economic growth through research and development, regulatory reforms and digitalization. Adding to that declaration, the prime minister also said the country would “make a fundamental transition” from its reliance on coal to a combination of renewable and nuclear power.
The prime minister read aloud his roughly half-hour speech in even tones, occasionally stumbling and at one point mispronouncing the word jyūtenka (adding emphasis) as gentenka (subject to a reduction) — which prompted a jeer — but otherwise delivering the address almost verbatim from his prepared manuscript.
Opposition party lawmakers in the Lower House at times heckled Suga, with one lawmaker taunting the prime minister by saying that the LDP-led government had “created only temporary workers” when he said it had increased the number of people employed by 4 million. Compared to other speeches, though, the opposition's heckling was more restrained as lawmakers wait to see how the new administration fares.
The ruling lawmakers did interrupt his remarks with applause on two occasions during the speech — when Suga thanked workers on the front lines amid the pandemic and when he announced the 2050 carbon neutral goal — and then at the end.
Suga allotted eight out of nine sections of the speech to domestic politics, his presentation opening with steps to balance the economy and public health. With no prospect of the COVID-19 pandemic abating any time soon, he vowed to protect jobs and ensure businesses stay open through government-backed subsidies and interest-free loans.
Linking protective gown and mask shortages at the early stage of the outbreak to an over-reliance on limited sources — namely China — the prime minister promised to step up the diversification of supply chains.
Regarding measures against COVID-19 specifically, the prime minister promised that regional health care facilities would be able to conduct 200,000 virus tests on average per day toward the winter and that vaccines would be provided to the whole nation free of charge, with prioritized inoculation for senior citizens, people with pre-existing conditions and health care workers.
On entry restrictions related to COVID-19 that were partially relaxed this month, he set a goal of increasing testing capacity at borders to 20,000 people per day by next month to support the resumption of travel, mainly for business.
“Amid the national crisis marked by the spread of COVID-19 and the worst economic downturn since the end of World War II, I’ve taken on the extremely heavy responsibilities of giving guidance to the nation,” Suga said. “I’m going to make sure an explosive rise in new cases is avoided, by all means, and protect the lives and health of the people at any cost. On top of that, I’m going to ensure economic recovery by resuming social and economic activities.”
Shifting gears, Suga dedicated the longest stretch of his speech to diplomacy. On some topics, there were little differences from Abe’s policies.
The prime minister mentioned that he was open to meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without conditions, while describing the Japan-U.S. alliance as the “cornerstone” of Japan’s diplomacy and national security and the basis of peace, prosperity and liberty in the Indo-Pacific region and international society.
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and liberal, multilateral trade framework, both of which were developed under Abe, would remain the administration’s key pillars, he said.
Suga described South Korea as “a very important neighbor” but called on Seoul to “take appropriate actions to restore healthy Japan-South Korea relations.” The phrasing mirrored a policy speech delivered in January by Abe, in which the former prime minister acknowledged the common interests and values shared by both countries but characterized South Korea as “naturally” Japan’s most important neighbor — a subtle admonishment reflecting Tokyo’s dissatisfaction toward what it sees as a tepid response by Seoul on the issue of wartime labor.
Although the overall policy tone has been inherited from Abe, Suga did adjust language slightly to reflect his own assessment on bilateral relations with certain countries.
For example, compared to Abe’s description of Japan-China relations Suga dialed down the enthusiasm, recognizing the importance of bilateral ties and expressing determination to resolve differences but without deploying phrases such as “working to rebuild a new era of Japan-China relations” used by Abe, who apparently paid more heed to the risks of expressing sentiments skeptical toward Beijing.
On dealings with Russia, Suga reaffirmed his determination to resolve the Northern Territories dispute. But he omitted references to joint economic activities or the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956 mentioned in Abe’s past speeches, which had underpinned moves seeking the return of two of the four islands.
The shift hinted at changes in power dynamics within the current administration, suggesting that the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which had pushed for stronger ties with Moscow, has lost ground with Abe’s departure and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has secured more influence in decision making.
“I’m resolved to be active on diplomacy as Japan further develops relationships based on trust and cooperation with countries including the U.S.,” Suga said.
Suga made only a passing reference to constitutional reform, toward the end of the speech, as if it were merely a formality — a sharp contrast from Abe’s charged-up January address in which he called on Diet members to fulfill their responsibility to debate drafts on changes to the top law.
The prime minister made no explicit references to the Science Council of Japan, perhaps the biggest controversy faced by the administration after it rejected the appointments of six scholars proposed by the body as members. Opposition parties are expected to slam the government over the decision, and have accused it of using scrutiny of the academic council under the banner of administrative reform as a means to shift attention.
“We’re going to forge ahead with regulatory reforms with all our strength by breaking down bureaucratic red tape, vested interests and the bad habit of following precedent,” Suga said at the conclusion of his speech, in what could be read as a subtle allusion to the government’s effort to reform the council. “We’re going to build a new era by accomplishing reforms as ‘the Cabinet that works for the people.’”
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