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Reporters’ roundtable discussion on Diet interpellations at budget committee thus far

On Feb. 3, the House of Representatives Budget Committee saw the ruling and opposition parties complete their basic Diet interpellation sessions with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other cabinet ministers. Since last week, Abe attended question and answer sessions held at the budget committee for a total of seven days. The major point of contention was how the government will deal with the U.S. administration led by President Donald Trump. Though there was much talk of the murky prospects for the economy and national security, Abe managed to sail through “act one of the Trump-focused Diet session.” Our reporters in the political news section met for a roundtable discussion and reviewed the Diet interpellations thus far.


Head reporter: A majority of questioners from the ruling and opposition parties were interested in President Trump’s words and deeds.


Reporter on the Budget Committee: This was mainly because Abe and Trump are scheduled to meet on Feb. 10. Many questions centered on how Abe will respond to Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact and his demand for Japan to pay more for hosting the U.S. military. It was difficult for Abe to make detailed comments before he meets with Trump. He seemed to be trying to be careful about what he said. He responded to questions by saying “I cannot make comments by predicting the outcome.”


Reporter on the ruling parties: Some people in the ruling parties feel that “the prime minister was speaking faster in answering questions” when it came to issues related to Trump. He may be explaining more because it is hard to directly comment on issues such as the immigration ban.


Reporter on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA): MOFA, mainly the North American Affairs Bureau, was pressed to work until midnight to prepare answers to Trump-related questions. Because of the time difference, what the president says is reported in Japan in the morning [of the day Diet interpellations are held].” Some MOFA officials were worn out, saying “We have to stay alert even in the morning.”


Reporter on the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei]: The opposition parties immediately reacted to Trump’s comments and tried to emphasize that Abe’s policy is a failure. On the economic front, they questioned things such as Japan could be pressed harder in bilateral trade negotiations than in the TPP and how the government will rebut the U.S. argument about Japan’s currency devaluation through monetary easing.


Reporter on the opposition parties: The opposition parties questioned Abe about the U.S. entry ban on citizens from “countries suspected of acts of terrorism” and asked him to state his position. This left the impression that they were trying to play up a distinctive difference between Abe and the leaders of other industrialized nations who are growing wary of Trump.


Reporter on the Kantei: Nonetheless, Abe objected to Trump’s arguments that say “Japan’s auto trade is unfair” and “Japan is lowering the value of its currency.” These things can easily affect Japan’s leading businesses, such as Toyota Motors. The easing of the weak yen can affect stock prices and the Abe government, as its support rate is said to be linked to stock prices.


Abe helps out cabinet ministers having difficulty


Head reporter: Another focal point in the Diet interpellations was a legislative amendment to the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, which is designed to revamp the conditions constituting “conspiracy” and newly create an offense to criminalize the acts of plotting and preparing to commit terrorism and other organized crimes.


Reporter on the ruling parties: The opposition parties zeroed in on Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda. The way he responded to questions was nerve-wracking. Whenever he stalled, the secretary came to rescue him. Toshimitsu Motegi, LDP policy chief, was so worried that he advised the minister, “We have plenty of time. Please take it easy and answer the questions with confidence.”


Reporter on PM Abe: Abe came to the rescue of cabinet ministers when they were grilled by the opposition parties. In particular, when Kaneda and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada stood to take questions, he leaned toward them and listened to them intently. When Inada was assailed by Democratic Party President Renho about her past interview article, Abe advised her loudly, “Don’t answer that question.”


Work style reform and “amakudari” issue raised, but opposition fails to attack government


Reporter who covers the Kantei: Abe and Renho had a faceoff at the House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting on Jan. 30, but she failed to go on the offensive in many areas. The government also attaches importance to the DP’s signature policies, such as “free education” and “work-style reform,” and she could not play up the party’s position.


Reporter who covers the opposition parties: To take advantage of the recent revelations on the “amakudari” practice of giving lucrative jobs to retired bureaucrats of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the chairman of the DP’s Diet affairs committee ordered legislators to “sack the cabinet ministers.” But one DP member was saying, “It is difficult to nail the government on the amakudari issue as we don’t have much material to use against it. But we can’t find any other topics to use to drive the government into a corner.”


Reporter on the ruling parties: It appears that the opposition parties are not united in attacking the government. When a questioner from the DP presented panels [before asking questions], LDP Shigeru Ishiba, a member of the budget committee, said that “too many panels blur the point of questions.”


Reporter on the opposition parties: Starting from the current Diet session, Nippon Ishin [Japan Innovation Party] is participating in a meeting of opposition party directors held every morning at the invitation of the DP. Ishin might be trying to change its stance, because it came under attack for leaning toward the ruling parties in the previous Diet session.


Reporter on the Kantei: But Ishin voted for the supplementary budget and there is no question that it is leaning toward the LDP-Komeito coalition. Many things are happening, but Diet deliberations will proceed at the pace of the ruling parties.


Reporter on the Budget Committee: Abe affirmed the strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Feb. 3. But it is true what the Trump administration plans to do about issues such as the cost of stationing the U.S. troops and currency policy remains unclear. The public is also showing a strong interest in the U.S. administration. Trump’s words and deeds will continue to affect Diet deliberations.

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