Taro Kono's Press Conference at FCCJ: His Policy Agenda as LDP President
Chadwick I. Smith (Consultant based in Japan)
Senior Vice Minister of Justice and Lower House member Taro Kono announced his candidacy for LDP President on May 11 and recently gave a professional luncheon speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) on July 31 to outline his policy agenda. Although, he has not yet received the required twenty signatures, Mr. Kono started off with a bold statement, he opened the speech by stating "Prime Minister Taro Kono is not going to go to Yasukuni Shrine" quickly dispelling any speculation.
In Mr. Kono's introductory remarks he compared Japan today with Eastern Europe of the late 1990's in that it was trying to transition to a market economy; however, as he pointed out this transition may be brutal and he then compared the LDP "old guard" to former communist members who wish to lead the LDP in old age. Therefore, the LDP must look to the future for Japan and not focus on the past. Mr. Kono lamented that others do not want to talk about policy and stressed that the race for LDP President should be one of policy discussion and not a "beauty contest." Such direct comments are unusual for a Japanese politician but to many, they are a very welcome change.
Representative Kono then began to discuss his agenda as LDP President, starting with his first item, pension system reform. As Japan's population begins to dwindle, this system is in desperate need of reform. Mr. Kono stated that the 1st tier system kokumin nenkin should not be a premium-based system and instead it should be funded by the consumption tax. The aging population and its reverse pyramid structure is also causing great stress on the 2nd tier pension system and the government solution would either be to increase the premium or reduce the pension amount, both of which are not good for the people. Mr. Kono's proposal was to encourage savings (9% of annual income) so that individuals could fund their own pension.
The second agenda item is education reform. Mr. Kono stated that it is important to keep upward mobility, and this should be the focus for reforming the public education system. His solution to this would be to give all of the funding and authority to the school boards in each city and town and they should be the sole decision makers regarding curriculum and hiring. In addition, Mr. Kono stated that 80% of residential tax should be paid where an individual currently lives and 20% to where the individual received their education. This then would create an incentive to improve education and also a competitive atmosphere, which is something that is currently avoided.
The third item on his agenda was Energy. Representative Kono referred to Japan's energy policy as "crazy." He lamented that Japan's plutonium could be a target for terrorism and that Japan currently can only produce plutonium and there is no method to burn it, he went on to refer to this as "suicidal" and declared that the nuclear fuel cycle is "bankrupt." Mr. Kono's solution to this would be to invest in renewable energy.
The budget was Mr. Kono's fourth item on his agenda. The key to solve the budget problem is to cut expenditures, instead of only reducing the growth of the deficit. According to Kono, the solution would be a clear-cut division of responsibility between the national and local government and he even went so far as to propose whether Japan even needs 47 prefectures, 47 governors and 47 prefectural assemblies. Again, Representative Kono was very direct on his policy statements and although his bold proposals may be refreshing to foreign correspondents, it is important to remember that the real test will be how receptive these ideas are to the Japanese.
The floor was then opened for questions and correspondents were quick to focus on Mr. Kono's previous remarks that Japan's foreign population should be limited to 3% of total population. According to Kono, the foreign population is now only 1.2% and that his 3% figure was not really a cap in the sense that further discussion would be held when the foreign population actually reached 3% but cautioned that Japan cannot be like Europe with foreign populations of 5%-7%. Much to the dismay of those present, he also disagreed with the need for any legislation banning discrimination in Japan and stressed the need for changes in culture and society prior to the introduction of any type law.
Regarding Japan's foreign policy, Representative Kono stated that he disagreed with Prime Minister Koizumi's policy and stated that Japan's relationship with China and with Korea is very important, and if Japan needs friends, it should be willing to make some compromise regarding recent disputes. He went on to state that Japan should recognize Palestine and provide aid in a hope that in the future Japan could provide influence at the negotiating table with Palestine. Mr. Kono concluded by stating that the US-Japan alliance should remain as the base of Japan's foreign policy but only until China becomes fully democratic.
However, when asked if Japan's harder stance in the UN following North Korea's missile launch would continue, Representative Kono stated that Japan did a "superb" job and this type of behavior should continue if Japan was to become a permanent member of the Security Council. These remarks conflicted somewhat with his earlier statements in which Japan should be willing to make compromises. Although there was a compromise and the UN resolution was eventually passed, it required pressure and veto threats for Japan to tone down its original version. Mr. Kono's comments indicate that no matter how conciliatory the politician, North Korea is one subject in which emotions run high and all must toe the party line.
(The author asking about North Korea)