In a policy address before the Diet on Wednesday, Prime Minister Taro Aso, as expected, gave priority to helping the nation tide over the current economic crisis. Correctly observing that all of the world is simultaneously entering an unprecedented recession and that Japan cannot escape it, he noted that what people want from politicians is protection “against the tsunami of the financial crisis.”

Mr. Aso made it Japan’s goal to be the first country to get out of the economic downturn: “If the opposition forces have good ideas, we have much to discuss. But we cannot afford to unnecessarily hold off decisions.” The problem is that Mr. Aso himself lost precious time last fall when he decided not to submit a second supplementary budget for fiscal 2008 — part of the government’s economic-stimulus measures — to the Diet during the session that ended in December.

His stubborn insistence on handing out ¥2 trillion in cash to all households is inviting strong resistance from opposition forces, which could delay the passage of bills necessary to implement the budget. According to a recent Kyodo News poll, more than 70 percent of those surveyed also are against the plan, whose economic effects are deemed dubious. So, without a change of attitude on his part, Mr. Aso’s call for quick decisions sounds hollow.

In view of the current economic and social conditions, Mr. Aso called for creation of a society in which people can live without anxiety, can overcome problems arising from the unprecedented graying of the population and can tackle global problems with ingenuity and advanced technologies.

Touching on the role of government in this context, Mr. Aso said, “The slogan of shifting from public to private, or the mere choice between big and small government, does not produce an ideal perspective.”

Blaming the U.S. subprime mortgage fiasco and the current global recession on extreme market-based principles, he said that delegating everything to market forces does not guarantee that everything will come out OK. His idea is a clear departure from the policy line spearheaded by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But Mr. Aso failed to flesh out his idea. He said only that one of the government’s roles is to set down fair and transparent rules and guide economic growth.

Mr. Aso admitted that Japan has not been fully successful in building a society in which the elderly, disabled people and women can conveniently work, and in which people unable to compete in the labor market receive adequate support. He proposed that the government shift its priority to the support of ordinary citizens. This is a commendable change in thinking, but he did not indicate how the government will change the nation’s social security system.

In order to stabilize the nation’s social safety net and make it reliable, the prime minister envisaged providing a “middle degree of social welfare benefits based on middle-degree financial burdens” borne by people. He said, “I ask people to shoulder a necessary burden.” Apparently he had a higher consumption tax in mind.

He vowed to take necessary legal measures by fiscal 2011 to carry out fundamental tax reform, and to make a decision on the consumption tax rate after considering economic conditions. He added that he will do his best to put the economy on a recovery path “toward fiscal 2011.”

Mr. Aso failed to elaborate on the idea of a “middle degree of social welfare benefits.” People will not easily accept a rise in the consumption tax without a full explanation. Mr. Aso even stands to face opposition to a consumption tax rise within his Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. Aso mentioned a series of economic-stimulus packages worth a total of ¥75 trillion — the first and second supplementary budgets for fiscal 2008 and the fiscal 2009 budget — plus a new economic growth strategy to create 1.6 million jobs in three years. But as far as specifics go, the speech repeated a list of measures already known.

Mr. Aso sought to encourage people by referring to Japan as a “success model,” because of its advanced technologies and an attractive culture, stressing that Japan has the latent energy to overcome the crisis. In a proposal that typifies Mr. Aso’s ideas, he called for the utilization of “soft power,” which includes animation, fashion and delicious and safe food.

However, he needs to realize that as long as he postpones the dissolution of the Lower House and a subsequent snap election, he will be putting off his best chance of ever winning maximum credibility from people.

Mr. Aso showed his eagerness to strengthen Japan’s alliance with the United States by working with President Barack Obama. He called for Japanese contributions to the formation of a new order in the international community. It is hoped that he will devise creative approaches embodying the spirit and principles of the war-renouncing Constitution.

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