BY SATOSHI SUGIYAMA
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday declared 2020 a “crucial year to establish a new era of Japanese diplomacy” in a speech before the Diet, vowing to tackle international issues head-on.
During the address kicking off the 150-day session, however, Abe made no mention of mounting scandals surrounding his administration: the resignations of two ministers over alleged campaign finance law violations, the arrest of a Diet member responsible for developing the government’s policy for so-called integrated resorts featuring casinos, and allegations of cronyism and favoritism concerning a taxpayer-funded cherry blossom party.
Opposition parties will surely be challenging the administration over issues of accountability. And because of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the July 5 Tokyo gubernatorial election, extending the Diet session will likely be difficult, meaning Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party will face a tight schedule for passing legislation.
Instead of opening him and his party up for criticism amid the scandals, Abe on Monday focused his speech on foreign policy, delivering a notable change in phrasing regarding South Korea. He reinstated a description referring to Seoul as Tokyo’s “most important neighbor” for the first time since 2017, striking a tone of cautious optimism. In a policy speech in October, Abe had referred to South Korea as an “important neighbor.”
Stressing that Tokyo shares fundamental values and strategic interests with Seoul “by nature,” Abe pressed South Korean leader Moon Jae-in to have a constructive and cooperative relationship at the beginning of the new decade.
But he also made clear that he won’t be backing down easily on the issue of compensation for wartime forced labor — a persistent thorn in bilateral relations. Admonishing Seoul, Abe reiterated Tokyo’s stance that the nations settled the matter through a 1965 treaty and that Japan is abiding by international law.
“Diplomacy with neighboring countries has become critical as the national security environment in Northeast Asia has become more severe,” Abe said. “I sincerely expect (South Korea) to keep the promises between nations and build future-oriented bilateral relations.”
In his January 2019 policy speech, Abe left out the phrase on South Korea as being Japan’s “most important neighbor,” a reflection of increasingly testy relations at the time.
Bilateral relations soured when a series of South Korean court rulings instructed Japanese companies to pay compensation for victims of wartime forced labor in 2018. They took a turn for the worse last summer, when Japan imposed stricter controls on exports to South Korea of high-technology materials.
Japan’s trade ministry has since eased some export control measures, and Abe and Moon met in December with hopes of repairing damaged ties.
Regarding military tensions in the Middle East, Abe went beyond his usual line expressing a desire to conduct robust diplomacy taking advantage of Japan’s friendly relations with nations in the region. He spoke of his “deep concern” and urged all parties to exercise restraint and seek diplomatic solutions based on dialogue.
Japan will dispatch the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Takanami, a 4,650-ton destroyer, and has already sent two P-3C surveillance patrol airplanes to the waters off Oman and Yemen for an “investigation and research” mission. While opposition lawmakers have criticized the move as a constitutional loophole, Abe again justified it as a way to protect ships tied to Japanese interests, noting that the country heavily depends on energy resources from the region.
As this year marked the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Abe lauded the alliance, calling it robust “at an unprecedented level.”
He also reaffirmed his intention to settle a territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty with Russia and meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “without prerequisites” in a bid to resolve the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens.
Abe also renewed his commitment to building “mature” Japan-China relations relevant to the new era.
“Japan and China both bear enormous responsibilities in regional and global peace and prosperity,” Abe said. “The international society has strong expectations for us to clearly present our will to fulfill those responsibilities in the current situation in Asia.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is slated to visit Japan in the spring, a step expected to further boost ties.
Referring repeatedly to the Olympic Games — both this year’s events and those of 1964, when Tokyo last hosted — Abe sought to link the sporting spectacle to his policy ambitions.
Invoking the Tohoku region’s recovery from the catastrophic 2011 earthquake, Abe labeled the 2020 Games as the “Recovery Olympics” and expressed hope that international visitors will see the resilience of the devastated regions up close.
Summing up his achievements so far, Abe said his economic, welfare, labor, defense and foreign policies have lifted Japan above what he called “the wall of resignation,” in which the country was trapped in economic doldrums until seven years ago, when he made a comeback as prime minister.
“Our country is no longer the Japan it used to be,” Abe said. “We were able to completely smash ‘the wall of resignation.’ With that confidence and pride, everyone, let us carve out Japan’s new Reiwa Era together from now on.”
LDP members occasionally interrupted the speech with thundering applause and enthusiastic shouts of agreement. Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, interrupted Abe more than a dozen times, with shouts rising to a crescendo when the prime minister brought up the promotion of casino resorts.
Opposition parties earlier Monday introduced a bill banning casino operations in a bid to derail the project. The move is largely seen as symbolic and is expected to fall short of the needed votes.
Turning to domestic policy, Abe outlined a laundry list of new initiatives he is hoping to achieve under a “social security for all” pledge, promising to facilitate reforms in pensions, health care and nursing care. He is seeking to expand pensions to part-time workers while asking high-income earners over age 75 to shoulder more of the burden for medical costs, in addition to asking firms to guarantee job opportunities for people over 70.
On child-rearing, Abe discussed his goal of achieving a fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime — of 1.8, up from 1.42 in 2018, through “tireless” support, pointing to a policy that will exempt higher education fees for students from low income households starting in April.
Empowering people with disabilities as well as women, he added, is a key to reviving the economy. But he did not present new specific plans beyond expanding support for victims of domestic violence.
Abe also showed enthusiasm for boosting tourism by accelerating multilingual services and internet accessibility, with an ultimate goal of attracting 60 million annual overseas visitors by 2030.
Also in focus during the Diet session is what progress Abe can make on his long-held determination to revise the Constitution, particularly the war-renouncing Article 9. Last year, the Commission on the Constitution in the Lower House held a meeting for the first time in about two years, but no substantial progress was made.
Abe left mention of amending the Constitution to the end of the speech, leading to perhaps the most raucous moment of the address.
Raising his voice, the prime minister urged Diet members to fulfill their “responsibility” by presenting proposals on the issue, prompting ruling party lawmakers to erupt with applause as opposition members delivered furious taunts.
“We are going to make dramatic reforms on the matters that affect the shape of our country, including social security,” Abe said. “A new Reiwa Era has begun. The Olympics and Paralympics are ahead of us. As we are filled with a lively feeling for the future, now is the time to implement them. We can’t carry out responsibilities for the next generation if we procrastinate.”