Six months after he took office, what is Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori aiming to achieve? Equally important, what does the opposition have to say about his policy — or the lack thereof? These questions went largely unanswered during the Lower House debates that took place this week. The exchanges proved a dud, if anything, with government and opposition leaders going through the motions of fighting a battle of words.

That is regrettable, if only because clear and specific words are the best means of sending political messages to the people. True, the public’s growing mistrust of politicians stems more from their deeds than their words. But this does not mean that their words are less important than their deeds. Still, there is not much sense in repeating the time-tested pattern of prepared questions and answers. It is time to revamp this cut-and-dried practice.

This is not to belittle the value of plenary debate, which is supposed to be a contest of political ideals and beliefs between leaders of the ruling and opposition parties. As such, the debate is designed to give the people a broad picture of where politicians are trying to lead the nation. This is particularly important in these times of coalition politics, when the policy lines dividing the ruling and opposition camps are not always clear.

In his policy speech to the current Diet session, Mr. Mori said: “Peace and prosperity will not come automatically in the 21st century. Building a rainbow bridge from the 20th to the 21st century is our responsibility and our role.” But, intentionally or not, he did not spell out what kind of Japan he wants to build (aside from making it a top Internet-driven nation), or how he will lead the nation into an era of “peace and prosperity,” or what his underlying beliefs are.

Mr. Yukio Hatoyama, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, challenged Mr. Mori to come forward with more specific statements and dwelt on his own brand of “new liberalism.” But the prime minister did not respond. He should have accepted Mr. Hatoyama’s challenge by clarifying the guiding principles of the Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners.

Mr. Mori attempted to drum up support for the “IT (information technology) revolution” and “education reform.” While he succeeded in conveying a sense of crisis, he failed to explain what he thinks of these issues. He was rightly concerned about Japan’s lag in Internet communications, but he said nothing about what he is trying to achieve through the IT revolution and how it will change Japanese society. Nor did he speak his mind on education reform.

The opposition camp is also to blame for this lackluster parliamentary performance. The DPJ and its colleagues avoided a clash of ideas about these vital issues. With the ruling and opposition parties shunning a hard-hitting debate, the public is left to wonder where all the talk of a “national IT movement” will lead. Without public support and participation, the proposed campaign will remain what it is now — a slogan.

Both Internet development and educational improvement are scheduled for fuller discussion in next year’s regular Diet session. Yet Mr. Mori brought these subjects up in the current extraordinary session. It is hard not to think that he is merely trying to capitalize on these “big-ticket” issues in a bid to boost his administration’s public-approval rating. Mr. Mori already appears to be preoccupied with the need to position his party favorably for the runup to next summer’s Upper House elections.

It is possible that all the hoopla about the IT revolution and education reform might deflect attention from other key items on the agenda of the current session, such as an anticorruption bill, a review of public-works projects and a makeover of the Upper House election system. All these involve the role of money in politics, particularly LDP politics. If mishandled, they could prove the coalition’s undoing. It remains to be seen, however, whether these and other pressing issues — including a bill that would give voting rights to permanent non-Japanese residents in local elections — will get a full airing.

Political leadership critically depends on a balanced capacity to deal with both short-term and long-term issues of national interest. In this sense, many people must be disappointed with Mr. Mori’s apparent inability to map out a credible strategy for Japan in the 21st century. While speaking vaguely of the future, he seems concerned primarily with immediate political gains. The Diet will have done its job well if the ruling and opposition parties are brought together in productive debates that will give a new shape to Japan in the next century.

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