BY SATOSHI SUGIYAMA, STAFF WRITER
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida went on the offensive Monday to lay out a blueprint for containing the omicron variant, invigorating the weakening Japanese economy and reinforcing the country’s defense programs even at the risk of upsetting the ruling party’s coalition partner.
In his second policy speech as prime minister, Kishida introduced an array of policy specifics, vowing to administer coronavirus booster shots earlier, expand tax credits for firms that raise wages and complete national security strategy updates within a year.
On the coronavirus vaccine rollout, Kishida reversed the government’s previous position on booster shots.
“From the standpoint of taking all possible measures to prevent infection, the (booster shot) vaccine will be brought forward as much as possible, rather than waiting for eight months … after determining to a certain extent the effectiveness of the existing vaccine against the omicron strain and other factors,” Kishida said.
Related to vaccines, Kishida announced the introduction of digital proof of vaccination using Japan’s My Number social security system in tandem with taxation identification cards and smartphones. The system will be made available starting Dec. 20. Electronic verification would be used in Japan and abroad.
The speech, kicking off an extraordinary parliamentary session set to run through Dec. 21, was delivered amid uncertainty about the omicron variant’s potential impact on public health, which could threaten to upend Kishida’s initiatives to fire up the economy.
What was once predicted to be a relatively smooth period of parliamentary debates could now be overshadowed by the variant’s emergence.
Although there have been only three domestic cases confirmed and overall coronavirus cases nationwide are significantly lower than in other major countries, more omicron-related cases and a surge in the number of coronavirus patients could foster frustration toward the administration’s approach to the virus despite its variety of precautionary countermeasures. In that case, the anxiety could fuel resentment toward the central government — and eventually hurt the Cabinet’s approval ratings.
Aside from increasing hospital capacity and streamlining a virus detection and treatment process in preparation for another uptick in cases, Kishida has promised to “fundamentally” expand free testing, including for those who are asymptomatic or are unable to receive vaccinations due to health reasons.
The prime minister has also set the goal of approving oral treatments for COVID-19 by the end of the year, and then immediately putting them to practical use. So far, he said 1.6 million doses have been secured.
Kishida stressed the importance of assuming the worst-case scenario — his go-to catchphrase — to deal with the omicron variant and the pandemic as a whole, citing his Cabinet’s decision to ban all new entries from abroad. To underscore his preparation for the unknown, he invoked U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 State of the Union speech: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
“I am prepared to bear all the criticism that we are being too cautious when we do not yet fully understand the situation,” Kishida said. “I understand that the people have entrusted me with the responsibility to proceed with my work with such determination, and I will do my best.”
Perhaps emboldened by the recent general election victory, Kishida spoke considerably longer than in the past, with his speech’s word count coming in close to 9,000 words — nearly 2,000 words longer than when he addressed the same audience before the election. This marks the first time the word count of such an address exceeded 8,000 since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s policy speech in October 2012.
Kishida was eager to articulate his policies — especially economic strategy — in detail to the public, which inevitably led to a longer speech, said a senior administration official who was familiar with the writing process.
During the 34-minute speech at the Lower House, jeers from the opposition side were noticeably minimal. This could be attributed to a leadership change for the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. New leader Kenta Izumi may prefer to avoid a confrontational debate style. Some have criticized the CDP for being preoccupied with rebuking the ruling block while offering few alternative solutions.
Ruling party lawmakers backed the prime minister with a chorus of agreement and applause, but they lacked visible enthusiasm. Some were dozing off, chatting with their colleagues or checking their smartphones.
Calling the nearly ￥56 trillion ($496 billion) economic stimulus package that will be debated at the extraordinary parliamentary session the one “to overcome the coronavirus and carve out a new era,” he justified massive government spending.
“We will not hesitate to make the necessary fiscal expenditures in response to the crisis and will take all possible measures,” Kishida said. “While there’s the economy, there are also public finances, and we should not make mistakes in that order. We will rebuild the economy. And we will work to restore fiscal soundness.”
He dedicated a large portion of the speech to economic policies, particularly his signature project of achieving a “new model” of capitalism. Although he mentioned the concept in his last speech in October, he was more critical of neoliberal economic policies implemented in Japan since the 1980s that he described as “the mainspring of the world economy’s growth but gave rise to many harmful effects.”
“Too much dependence on the market has led to growing inequality and poverty, and too much stress on nature has exacerbated the problem of climate change,” he continued.
Citing U.S. President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan and the European Union’s “NextGenerationEU” recovery plan, Kishida said Japan should also get on board with the worldwide trend of upgrading economic models by spurring economic growth and raising wages.
To encourage economic growth, he promised “bold” investment in science and technology, as well as training personnel geared toward those fields by restructuring university departments and graduate schools. To further facilitate digitalization in both Japan’s urban and rural areas, Kishida promised to complete a submarine cable encircling Japan in three years to provide for faster internet through a combination of fiber-optics and 5G technology.
Kishida identified climate change and economic security as two key pillars in his “new model of capitalism” growth strategy.
Renewing Japan’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 46% by 2030, he supported upgrading the electric power grid and expanding the use of storage batteries. To slash greenhouse gas emissions through thermal power generation in Japan and Asia, Kishida pushed for a transition toward ammonia and hydrogen as energy sources, while exporting such technologies and infrastructure abroad.
Aside from aiming to submit an economic security bill focused on bolstering the nation’s supply chain during next year’s regular parliamentary session, Kishida unveiled a plan to submit a separate bill during the extraordinary session to encourage semiconductor manufacturers to set up their plants in Japan.
Speaking directly about monetary distribution, Kishida presented specific figures about his administration’s goal to increase wages for specific areas of the work force: 3% — or an annual income increase of roughly ￥110,000 — for workers in elderly care and child care starting in February next year and a 3% incremental raise — or an additional annual income of ￥140,000 — for nurses working at qualified health care facilities.
In addition, a share of tax credits would be “dramatically expanded” for companies that raise employee salaries, Kishida said.
“Amid growing concerns that rising inflation worldwide would spill over to Japan, we will do our utmost to raise wages in order to protect the Japanese economy,” Kishida said. “In order to encourage the private sector to raise wages, we must create a virtuous cycle of wage increases and corporate growth to enable sustained wage increases.”
Defense and diplomacy
Kishida noted his economic policy is connected with diplomatic and national policy.
For Japan’s defense, he announced that the government would spend “generally one year” to update three key documents — the national security strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines and the medium-term defense program — the first time Kishida presented such a timeline.
He even went further to insist that the nation must “fundamentally bolster” its defense capabilities quickly in order to deal with present security challenges — specifically mentioning the term “enemy base strike capability” among options to consider.
Furthermore, he spoke twice as long regarding a constitutional amendment — from merely three sentences in his last policy speech to six. Urging lawmakers to live up to their responsibilities to contemplate the Constitution, Kishida said he “sincerely” expects lawmakers — regardless of party affiliation — to have active discussions in parliament.
He also said he expects lawmakers to raise the question with the public about whether or not the current Constitution “continues to be relevant in the current era.”
Mentioning these two subjects requires careful discretion out of consideration for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner, Komeito, which maintains a cautious stance on both. Nevertheless, Kishida’s overt reference in a key speech underscores his strategy to pacify conservative lawmakers who hold enormous power within the party and may be skeptical about how serious he is about tackling these issues.
Further, the advance in October’s general election of opposition parties that are open to backing the LDP on such issues — namely Nippon Ishin no Kai and the Democratic Party for the People — have made addressing the topics easier for Kishida.
On diplomacy, he simplified references to descriptions of Japan’s relations with neighboring countries, namely China, Russia and South Korea from October’s policy speech. In Monday’s speech, he covered all three countries in one paragraph, sparing only one sentence for each, as opposed to dedicating a single paragraph per country in the last address.
Overall, there were no remarkable changes to Kishida’s language. He spoke of a goal to build “a stable and constructive” relationship with China while urging South Korea to “take appropriate actions.” He expressed his resolution to develop a Japan-Russia resolution by resolving the status of the Northern Territories — which Russia claims and holds — and concluding a peace treaty.
Kishida reiterated his commitment to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unconditionally and work with the U.S. and other countries to repatriate Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
In this speech, though, he dedicated a full sentence to highlight his administration’s commitment to dealing with international human rights issues — identifying freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law as specific examples the administration regards as vital.
He continued to underline the importance of the Japan-U.S. relationship to his administration, touching upon his desire to visit the U.S. to meet Biden “as soon as possible” and seek cooperation with the U.S. on non-nuclear proliferation, something Kishida describes as his lifework.
“I feel strongly from my experience of serving as foreign minister for four years and eight months that there is nothing stronger than diplomacy and security with the understanding and support of the people,” Kishida said. “I will make every effort to carefully explain the situation to the Japanese people and gain their understanding as much as possible in order to promote ‘diplomacy and security with the people.’”