Lawmakers from the largest opposition party went on the attack against Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday, demanding the new leader explain why his predecessors’ coronavirus responses and economic policies failed, while at the same time offering counterproposals of their own to differentiate themselves ahead of a general election.

In the first debate at the national legislature, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) leader Yukio Edano rebuked Japan’s “complete failure” over its delay in imposing entry restrictions on people arriving from mainland China in the early stage of the pandemic. Criticizing the government’s move to shorten the self-isolation period at government-designated facilities to either three or six days, Edano proposed a 10-day stay and three rounds of PCR testing as an alternative.

Edano also railed at previous administrations’ shortcomings in beefing up the nation’s medical resources, expanding PCR testing and facilitating a quick vaccine rollout. The opposition party leader criticized Kishida’s plan to strengthen the chain of command in the realm of crisis management as “devoid of specifics.”

“Politics up until now have only stirred up competition and overemphasized self-responsibility,” Edano said in the Lower House. “Nothing will ever change if you only change the cover and don’t break away from the politics that led up to now and don’t reflect on it.”

Kishida responded that he has instructed three ministers — those with the health, coronavirus response and vaccine rollout portfolios — to work on a blueprint for securing medical resources, assisting patients recovering at home and administering vaccines.

In preparation for another outbreak in the winter, Kishida called for the expansion of free PCR testing that does not require a reservation. However, the prime minister did not elaborate on the details.

“Vaccinations proceeded at a speed unparalleled in the world, but not enough hospital beds were set aside for coronavirus patients,” Kishida acknowledged. “At the same time, we’ll thoroughly analyze our responses up until this point and examine what stood in the way of them.”

Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, speaks druring a question and answer session with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Lower House in Tokyo on Monday. | AFP-JIJI
Yukio Edano, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, speaks druring a question and answer session with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Lower House in Tokyo on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

The questioning by party representatives at the Diet, which takes place in both the Lower and Upper houses through Wednesday, is one of the few opportunities the opposition parties have to grill Kishida and the ruling coalition before the prime minister dissolves the Lower House on Thursday. Kishida announced last week that the general election campaign will commence on Oct. 19 and that Oct. 31 will be designated as election day.

Kishida’s elevation to the Prime Minister’s Office presents a challenge to the opposition in that some of his policy priorities — enhancing health care services to prepare for another wave of the coronavirus and focusing on the distribution of wealth — overlap with their own. Nonetheless, the opposition has been hoping to hold a budget committee meeting, where they would be given the opportunity to grill Kishida and his Cabinet members.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a CDP lawmaker, once again called for the prime minister to convene the committee. The ruling party, though, has been reluctant to budge.

Mindful of criticism that the opposition only ever attacks the ruling coalition, Edano interspersed a series of counterproposals throughout his speech. As part of the CDP’s agenda, he vowed to provide those on low incomes with a ¥120,000 cash handout a year along with other immediate financial benefits, and effectively exempt from income tax individuals whose annual salary is about ¥10 million or less per year.

To stimulate consumption and advance tax reform, he called for temporarily lowering the sales tax to 5% while increasing the income and corporate tax rates for high earners and large businesses, respectively.

Edano pounced on continuity between Kishida and his predecessors Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga regarding economic policies, with the opposition party leader rebuking Abenomics, a series of economic policies that raised stock prices but failed to spur private consumption. Regarding Kishida’s policy of “creating a positive cycle of growth and distribution” by empowering the middle class, Edano dismissed it as nothing more than a general statement.

“The biggest problems are that proper distribution is not working and there are widespread anxieties about the future, both of them hindering growth,” Edano said. “The starting point of creating the positive cycle, I believe, is proper distribution.”

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Akira Amari speaks to reporters at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO
Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Akira Amari speaks to reporters at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Friday. | KYODO

The prime minister defended Abenomics, saying it has been important for economic growth, and his policy of promoting growth and wealth distribution. He even took a swing at the Democratic Party of Japan, the predecessor of the CDP.

“First of all, it’s extremely important for us to aim for growth and we’ll do everything we can to achieve this goal,” Kishida said. “This is something we learned from the failure of the years when the DPJ was in office.”

On diplomacy, Edano addressed the need to revamp the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement — allowing Japanese authorities to enter U.S. bases in the event of an accident or a criminal case — and asked Kishida’s view on the relationship between Taiwan and China.

The prime minister did not express urgency about revising the treaty immediately. Regarding Taiwan, he restated the government’s position, which calls for a peaceful resolution to the issue based on dialogue between Taipei and Beijing.

Edano also pressed Kishida over letting Japan participate as an observer at a meeting of signatories of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Kishida, who belongs to a political family from atomic-bombed Hiroshima Prefecture but is neutral on Japan taking part in the treaty, has stressed the need to work toward achieving “a world without nuclear weapons” while nonetheless arguing that the country first needs to bring nuclear powers, including the U.S., into the discussion.

“The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an important treaty that can be regarded as a path toward a world without nuclear weapons,” Kishida said. “However, in order to change the situation, cooperation from nuclear powers is necessary. Not a single nuclear nation, though, has joined the treaty.”

Akira Amari, the LDP secretary-general, took the stage on behalf of the ruling party and called for Japan to strategically invest in critical fields integral for economic growth, notably semiconductors. The ruling party heavyweight also asked Kishida about his creation of a new Cabinet minister post in charge of economic security.

In response, Kishida brought up a plan to institute a roughly ¥10 trillion fund to bolster research at universities, as well as massive investments in important areas such as artificial intelligence.

He argued his Cabinet will further work to prevent cutting-edge technologies from being leaked to other countries and bolster economic self-reliance.

“Since there’s a wide range of economic security issues, the government as a whole under a new Cabinet minister will address various issues, including building robust supply chains and attracting firms manufacturing items such as semiconductors to Japan,” Kishida said.

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