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Editorial: New Diet session offers a chance to restore its role as watchdog body

  • October 5, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:10 p.m.
  • English Press

The extraordinary Diet session that began Oct. 4 featured a new alliance among some opposition parties, such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People.


The ruling and opposition camps face a heap of challenges, both on the domestic and diplomatic fronts.


This will require serious and meaningful debate to ensure the Diet is able to perform its core function of monitoring and checking the government. This session will be a crucial test of whether the legislature can resume its essential role.


In his policy speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to the rise in the consumption tax rate to 10 percent on Oct. 1 and recited steps the government has taken to cushion the economic impact, such as reduced rates for certain goods to help prop up domestic consumption.


But he made no effort to win public support by offering an explanation of why the tax rate increase was necessary.


Another urgent and high-profile issue he discussed only briefly and in a perfunctory manner is the newly negotiated trade agreement between Japan and the United States, which is widely seen as the main topic for this Diet session.


While Abe touted the new bilateral trade agreement as a “win-win” deal for Japan and the United States, he did not refer to any specific component of the accord. He only stressed the government’s efforts to protect farmers from unwanted repercussions.


Abe also showed little enthusiasm about taking effective steps to repair the soured relationship with South Korea, which is having a considerable impact on a wide range of areas from the economy to national security and grassroots exchanges.


When he talked about his foreign policy agenda, South Korea was the country he mentioned last, after China and Russia.


While acknowledging that South Korea is an important neighbor, Abe’s message focused on Japan’s demands related to a bitter bilateral row over the issue of compensation of wartime Korean laborers. “I intend to call on (South Korea) to abide by a promise made between countries in line with international law,” he said.


Abe’s speech was flavored with slogans using the new imperial era name, such as “Japan fit for the (new) Reiwa Era” and “renewed national development in the Reiwa Era.”


But the prime minister failed to offer a specific vision for the future of the nation or an overall policy framework for the new era.


Abe referred to his signature policy initiative to amend the Constitution at the end of his speech. Arguing that the mission of the Commissions on the Constitution of both houses of the Diet is to discuss what kind of nation Japan should aspire to be in the Reiwa Era, Abe called on the Diet to “fulfill its responsibility to the people” by initiating debate on the Constitution.


But it is hard to claim that the Japanese public is growing impatient to hear their representatives to debate constitutional amendments.


Debate on the topic aimed only at promoting Abe’s amendment initiative cannot be described as a way for the Diet to fulfill its responsibility to the public.


In the second half of this year’s regular Diet session, which ended in late June, the Abe administration gave no consideration to opposition parties’ demands for Budget Committee sessions and also ignored their request for an early extraordinary Diet session after the July Upper House election.


The administration’s inclination to avoid head-on debate on key policy issues on the Diet floor has eviscerated the legislature’s ability to keep watch on the administrative branch.


The agenda for this session is also filled with important issues, including those concerning such weighty topics as freedom of expression and the basic policy principles for nuclear power generation. Among them are the education ministry’s decision to withdraw a state subsidy for the Aichi Triennale 2019, an art festival in Aichi Prefecture marred by an acrimonious dispute over some politically sensitive exhibits; Japan Broadcasting Corp.’s (NHK) questionable responses to protests from Japan Post Insurance Co. over a program that reported on the company’s inappropriate practices in the sales of its insurance products; and issues related to allegations that Kansai Electric Power Co. executives received cash and other gifts from a former influential town government official, now deceased, who was a local bigwig in a town where one of the utility’s nuclear power plants is located.


The Abe administration should fulfill its own responsibility to offer explanations on these issues in a sincere manner as a first step toward rebuilding the legislature.

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