Photo/IllutrationYukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, questions Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a one-on-one debate session at the Diet on June 19. (The Asahi Shimbun)

With just one week left in this regular Diet session, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe engaged in his first one-on-one debates with opposition leaders June 19. The discussion focused almost exclusively on issues concerning the nation’s public pension system.

Of primary concern is how to alleviate public anxiety about their sunset years in light of a recent Financial Services Agency panel’s report that said elderly couples would need at least 20 million yen ($185,000) in savings to make ends meet over a 30-year period. The political discourse on the future of the pension system has barely begun.

Opposition leaders blasted the Abe administration’s decision to refuse to accept the FSA’s report. Yukio Edano, head of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called it another sign of the administration’s “tendency to turn a blind eye to facts it doesn’t want to see, pretending they do not exist.” Edano said the decision is reminiscent of how the administration responded to political scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, two school operators directly or indirectly linked to Abe.

Yuichiro Tamaki, chief of the Democratic Party for the People, also questioned Abe intensively on this issue, saying the administration’s penchant for sweeping inconvenient facts under the carpet is making people uneasy.

Abe responded by referring to pension reform undertaken in 2004, which was promoted under the slogan of “Nenkin 100 nen anshin” (100-year financial security for the public pension program). He asserted that the government has been responding to public concerns about the financial sustainability of the pension system.

As an example, he pointed out that the 2004 reform brought in a system in which pension benefits are automatically adjusted to macroeconomic conditions, ensuring that pension payouts will be cut as the nation’s population shrinks and ages.

But Abe rejected an opposition request for an early publication of the government’s latest five-yearly review of the long-term fiscal prospects for pension benefits.

During the debate, opposition leaders made some notable proposals, in apparent attempts to win over voters ahead of the scheduled Upper House election in July.

Edano proposed the introduction of a system to put a cap on the total financial burden borne by individuals for all social security programs, including those for public health and nursing care insurance. He also called for raising the overall wage levels of care workers, nurses and others in the nursing and health care areas.

Tamaki argued for a shift in economic policy focus toward households to make Japan an economy less dependent on external demand. Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, argued the case for increased premium payments by high income earners as a means to abolish the system to link pension benefits to macroeconomic conditions.

We welcome any serious political efforts to ensure that the ruling and opposition parties will engage in level-headed debate on key pension issues without trying to turn them into tools for partisan warfare.

Abe, however, showed no willingness to engage in constructive conversation with the opposition leaders. While turning down the proposal to abolish the pension benefit adjustment system, Abe did not express any views on other proposals. Abe’s attitude does little to help promote healthy debate on the pension system.

The Abe administration has gone out of its way to avoid debate on sensitive issues during this Diet session to ensure no serious political blunders occur before the Upper House poll.

The Budget Committees of both houses, the key arenas for debate on a wide range of policy issues, have not been convened since April, despite repeated opposition requests.

The one-on-one debate between party heads was the first to be held since June last year. With the total time allocated to four party chiefs limited to just 45 minutes, there was no possibility of in-depth discussions, even though the opposition leaders focused on pension issues. There was absolutely no time for other policy issues, such as diplomatic and security challenges.

There is little time remaining in this Diet session. Still, the ruling camp should agree to the opposition request for a Budget Committee session to address head-on important policy issues, both internal and external, including the pension system.

The ruling camp should not be allowed to get away with declaring that the frustrating event on June 19 marked an end to Diet debate during this session.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 20