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In the face of criticism over their use, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday that local governments who prefer handing out ¥50,000 in coupons instead of the cash equivalent will continue to have the option.

"Some local governments want to make use of the coupon system, and the national government will consider how to respect those wishes,” Kishida told a Lower House budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Kishida’s comments about the coupons came a day after he said local municipalities would be allowed to hand out ¥100,000 in cash to households with younger children by the end of this year. His remarks on Tuesday were in response to criticism from Seiji Osaka, executive deputy leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the largest opposition party.

"Don't you think that the cause of the confusion over the payouts was due to the government’s excessive focus on coupons?” Osaka asked.

Originally, the government had announced a plan that would provide households with children 18 and younger and where the top earner makes under ¥9.6 million and below with a handout worth ¥100,000 per child. Half of this would be in cash and the other half was mandated to be given as coupons.

But some local governments, including the city of Osaka and Kanagawa Prefecture, opposed the plan, citing increased local cost and administrative burdens if forced to adopt a coupon distribution system. Instead, some, such as Osaka Mayor and Nippon Ishin head Ichiro Matsui, called for cash-only systems.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan deputy chief Seiji Osaka at the Lower House budget committee in Tokyo on Tuesday | KYODO
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan deputy chief Seiji Osaka at the Lower House budget committee in Tokyo on Tuesday | KYODO

One estimate also showed administrative costs to the central government for distributing ¥50,000 cash to all qualified individuals would be about ¥30 billion, but that sending out the coupon equivalent would more than triple costs to ¥96.7 billion.

Kishida has agreed to all-cash payouts if local governments wish to have them, and the government is aiming to have the handout distributed by the end of this year.

The prime minister also faced questions from CDP leaders over two issues related to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, which ended in 2020. In April of that year, as the coronavirus spread, Abe announced that everyone would receive two cloth masks for free. But they proved highly unpopular and soon earned the name "Abenomask," a pun on his signature Abenomics economic policy mix.

Osaka noted that last year, the government purchased 290 million masks at a cost of about ¥40 billion, but that as of March 31 this year, it had around 82.7 million masks — worth about ¥11 billion — and that the government was paying for their storage with no clear idea if or when they might be distributed.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the Lower House budget committee in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the Lower House budget committee in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO

While Kishida said the plan is to continue to have the government store the unpopular masks, he said he would discuss what might be done with them to reduce storage costs.

In addition, he was asked about publicly funded cherry blossom parties hosted by Abe and the large number of people who were invited to them, with Kishida agreeing with criticism of them.

"That event was a longstanding practice with vague standards and the number of invitees was inflated,” he said. "The fact that it drew severe criticism from the public is a matter of great regret and must not be allowed to happen again, and I don’t plan to hold the party."

CDP veteran and former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada called on Kishida, who represents a district in Hiroshima, to have Japan participate as an observer in meetings of countries that have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The first meeting of the nations that joined is set for March.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan veteran and former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada at the Lower House budget committee in Tokyo on Tuesday | KYODO
Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan veteran and former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada at the Lower House budget committee in Tokyo on Tuesday | KYODO

The legal treaty took effect in January and declared virtually all nuclear weapons activities illegal. All nuclear weapons states, including the United States and China, have refused to join.

“If we participate as an observer, we will probably have the right to speak and have the opportunity to explain Japan's thinking to the participating countries. As the only nation to suffer the atomic bomb, we will also have the opportunity to explain what kind of damage nuclear weapons can cause,” Okada said.

However, Kishida replied that without nuclear-armed states committed to the treaty, the current situation will not change. He also said it is crucial that Japan first consults with its military alliance partner, the United States, which refused to join the treaty, before any decisions regarding observer status are made.

“If we participate in the conference before we have established a relationship of trust with U.S. President Joe Biden, we'll undermine the (bilateral) relationship, which is the most important thing,” he said.

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