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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and opposition lawmakers collided head-on in their first formal questioning session, the official kickoff for the 41-day autumn extraordinary Diet session.

The opposition camp assailed the administration over its earlier decision to reject the appointment of six academics to the Science Council of Japan during the session, which ran from Wednesday to Friday. However, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, also dedicated time to the government’s coronavirus measures, presenting questions and making proposals of its own.

The CDP increased its number of lawmakers this summer through a partial merger with the Democratic Party for the People. While its leader Yukio Edano did criticize Suga, his attacks were relatively measured.

The toned-down rhetoric apparently reflected criticism of the party that it is single-mindedly focused on attacking the government without making concrete policy proposals that could be considered seriously as an alternative to those of the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition. Such a move is also designed to undercut the DPP by positioning the CDP as the party that offers solutions to problems, which is the former’s major talking point.

Here are some highlights from the three days of questioning at the parliament.

Social welfare

Edano, who began the questioning, essentially set aside one-third of his speech Wednesday to address his party’s platform, asking for improved treatment of workers in health care, elder care, education and child care, as well as the beefing up of staffing at the Labor Standards Inspection Office and temporary child custody centers.

Edano refrained from launching a full-scale attack on the administration, welcoming one of Suga’s signature initiatives enabling infertility treatment to be covered by national insurance.

The opposition party leader’s tone in relation to Suga was restrained compared with times he criticized then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with Edano apparently holding reservations about throwing hard punches at the prime minister just yet. He took a jab at Suga’s slogan — “self-help, mutual help and public help” — as something that is conveniently used by the government to refuse assistance.

“What’s being questioned is the general vision of what we’re going to do about Japan’s future,” Edano said, invoking criticism that Suga’s policy speech Monday lacked a greater plan for the country. “The CDP will … hold up a goal of realizing ‘a cooperative society’ in which politics bears a responsibility to create a system that promotes mutual support as a new alternative to neoliberalism.”

Science council

On the science council scandal, which opposition parties had been expected to embrace enthusiastically, Edano pressed Suga to publicly explain his rationale for breaking with precedent and not nominating six scholars, all of whom had been vocal in their criticisms of the previous administration, of which the prime minister was a part.

Suga did not answer his questions on the matter and repeated his previous statements that the decision was made from the standpoint of enabling the organization’s “collective and comprehensive activities” and not leaning toward certain types of academics. He also noted the membership is skewed toward certain universities and does not have enough young scholars and those who have experience working in the private sector.

His response prompted jeers from opposition lawmakers. Appearing irritated, he paused his speech and turned to Speaker of the House of Representatives Tadamori Oshima asking him to silence the noisy lawmakers.

“As for the membership of the Science Council of Japan, there’s no obligation that the prime minister has to nominate all of the recommended individuals, and that is the government’s coherent position approved by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau,” the prime minister said.

Other opposition groups have also gone after Suga about the issue, but he largely stuck to his script. He also said the administration will not reappoint those six individuals.

Further asked to explain his justification by the Japanese Communist Party Secretariat Head Akira Koike, Suga noted that 45% of the council members belong to seven universities that are known collectively as “Imperial Universities”: University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Tohoku University, Kyushu University, Hokkaido University, Osaka University and Nagoya University. In contrast, council members belonging to private universities, of which there are 615 nationwide, account for 24%.

Members whose age is 49 or younger or those who work outside academia account for 3%, respectively, Suga said.

The environment

Edano welcomed the prime minister’s declaration on going carbon neutral by 2050 but chided him for using it as an excuse to boost reliance on nuclear energy. Although Suga said the government’s position on reducing dependence on nuclear power plants “as much as possible” has not changed, he did not rule out using them in addition to renewable energy to achieve the “difficult” goal.

Foreign policy

Seiko Noda, the LDP’s executive acting secretary-general, asked Suga on Wednesday about lifting entry restrictions to spur the economy while keeping new infections low. He did not offer an elaborate answer, only repeating past comments on gradually rolling back regulations based on outbreaks domestically and abroad.

Asked by Noda about the Japan-U.S. alliance, Suga stressed that bilateral relations will be further enhanced to deal with issues such as North Korea “regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential race.”

Tetsuro Fukuyama, CDP secretary-general, inquired whether Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s state visit is still on the horizon. Suga merely recited a past statement that both countries should focus on containing the coronavirus and that they are not at the stage of scheduling a visit.

The prime minister defended Japan’s decision not to take part in a United Nations treaty to ban nuclear weapons, saying that although the country agrees with the ultimate objective, it wants to incorporate countries that possess nuclear weapons into the framework. Even countries such as Germany and Canada that do not have nuclear weapons do not agree with it, he said.

“We think it’s appropriate to pursue a path where we advance nonproliferation carefully and realistically while we deal with national security threats in real life, including by maintaining or strengthening deterrence, as the national security environment around us gets even harsher,” he said, adding that Japan needs to “carefully consider” even whether to participate as an observer to the treaty.

Economy

On the economy, Suga responded to a question from Fukuyama on the possibility of compiling an additional supplement budget by signaling that he is looking to do so.

CDP’s Edano even demonstrated a willingness to reach across the aisle to develop additional economic packages to refuel the economy, which has been badly hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Keiichi Ishii, secretary-general of the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, quizzed Suga about extending housing and job aid for those experiencing severe economic hardship as a result of the coronavirus. The prime minister did not give a concrete promise but pledged to make “appropriate decisions” while taking things such as the employment situation into consideration.

In response to questions by the DPP’s Masao Kobayashi, Suga re-emphasized his administration’s commitment to carrying on with Abenomics and further promoting it by weaving it into his own policy ambitions regarding digitalization.

General election

Nippon Ishin no Kai’s Nobuyuki Baba asked Suga about dissolving the Lower House. As expected, the prime minister did not mention whether he would hold a general election, but he made clear that coronavirus measures and the economic recovery are the administration’s priorities.

“I want to think hard about it as there’s a time limit, meaning the general election must be held within a year,” Suga said. The Lower House lawmakers’ term expires in October next year.

Constitutional amendment

Suga expressed his gratitude to Nippon Ishin and the DPP with regards to their cooperative attitude toward constitutional amendment.

Asked about the administration’s strategy on achieving that goal, Suga repeated multiple times that it ultimately needs to be decided in a referendum and stressed the need for debates at the Commission on the Constitution, which has barely held any active discussions due to the long-term absence of opposition party lawmakers. He even went beyond his policy speech and said Friday that it is lawmakers’ responsibility to hold debates on constitutional reform at the commission, in line with Abe’s position.

“But for now, I hope for constructive debates at the Commission on the Constitution regardless of party affiliation,” Suga said.

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