The government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, the constitutionality of lockdowns and the challenge the pandemic has posed for the medical system were central themes at a debate Saturday between candidates vying to lead the Liberal Democratic Party and become Japan’s next prime minister.

Taro Kono, regulatory reform minister and the leader of Japan’s vaccine rollout, and Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, are considered the front-runners for the Sept. 29 vote. A poll of LDP party members released Saturday by Kyodo News showed Kono now enjoys a strong lead over his other three rivals, with 48.6% of respondents saying he’d be the right pick for party president. Kishida finished second in the poll, with support from 18.5% of the members polled.

Sanae Takaichi, a far-right hawk backed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was the choice of 15.7% of the respondents. Seiko Noda, the ruling party’s executive acting secretary-general, had support from just 3.3% of members.

In a wide-ranging debate at the Japan National Press Club on what they would do if elected LDP president, the four candidates offered their views on vaccines, health care and possible legislation that would allow Japan to enact lockdowns with legal penalties for those who don’t comply, as has been the case in many other countries at various times during the pandemic.

Kono saw increased investment in advanced technologies, especially in government and the medical system, as critical to the economy and society at large in order to meet the social and economic challenges of the post-COVID era.

“We must borrow the power of digital technology to create a more convenient and ‘value-added’ society,” Kono said.

Kishida spoke of the need to ensure the economic woes created by the coronavirus don’t widen the wealth gap between the rich and poor. He said he was not thinking about raising the consumption tax during the next decade or so.

“Correcting income disparities is extremely important. We need to aim for a new Japanese-style capitalism that consists of a virtuous cycle of growth and distribution,” Kishida said.

He added that effective coronavirus countermeasures would include a combination of incentives and policies. In addition to ensuring that restrictions were placed on the movement of people and that there were enough hospital beds and medical staff, he spoke of enacting a massive economic aid program.

There were stark differences between the candidates on Japan’s future energy policy and the roles nuclear power and renewable energy should play. | BLOOMBERG
There were stark differences between the candidates on Japan’s future energy policy and the roles nuclear power and renewable energy should play. | BLOOMBERG

Takaichi said that she would approve new investments to develop a homegrown vaccine, while Noda suggested that it was necessary to provide vaccines to children under 11 years of age.

The government has approved the Pfizer and Moderna shots for people age 12 and up. The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca is available for ages 40 and up, and people allergic to the other shots.

While the Japanese government can declare states of emergency, there are no legal penalties for violating requests for people to refrain from nonessential outings. Late last month, the governors of the 47 prefectures called on the central government to pass legislation that would give it the authority to order lockdowns with legal penalties, despite concerns about possible constitutional violations of freedom. Kono and Takaichi said that new legislation that allowed for such a lockdown was possible.

“Rather than debate the Constitution, it’s important to draft a bill that is properly debated in the Diet,” Kono said.

There were stark differences between the candidates on Japan’s future energy policy and the roles nuclear power and renewable energy should play. Kono is well-known as a maverick within the strongly pro-nuclear LDP. He has criticized Japan’s policy to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and has pushed for the elimination of nuclear power and the increased use of renewable energy sources.

However, in an attempt to attract support from powerful party veterans who agree with him on other issues but are more pro-nuclear, Kono has recently softened his stance, saying that nuclear power was currently still necessary, but would eventually be replaced by renewables.

“If nuclear plants are decommissioned after they reach the end of their operation life cycle, then nuclear power will smoothly decrease,” Kono said. Nuclear plants typically have a 40-year life cycle although that can be stretched to 60 years with government approval.

Takaichi, on the other hand, has long been a strong advocate of nuclear power and favors constructing small nuclear reactors underground to meet Japan’s future energy needs.

“From a risk-reduction point of view, in terms of a stable power supply, this is an option we can pursue,” she said.

Asked about how they would handle relations with China, Kono said that regular summits between Japanese and Chinese leaders were needed, while Kishida said it was necessary to continue to hold dialogues between the two countries’ leaders and top decision-makers.

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