Thursday, October 6, 2005

Fresh from his victory at the polls last month, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi set out policy goals for his remaining year in office at the opening of the parliamentary session.

Privatization of the post office, which members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rejected in August, is almost certain to be passed sometime this month as a result of Mr. Koizumi’s overwhelming mandate from the Sept. 11 election.

Once the postal issue is resolved, the LDP is expected to turn to issues centering on shrinking the government, reforming the constitution and promoting Japan’s role in the international community.

Mr. Koizumi, whose term ends in September, is likely to push for faster progress on these issues. With 327 of 480 seats in the powerful lower house, “the government has unprecedented legislative support for its policy initiatives,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan analyst at the East-West Center in Hawaii.

Reform of Japan’s constitution, for example, had fallen behind schedule, but “it is now conceivable that the amendment process will be looked at more concretely in the year ahead,” she said.

At the top of the agenda are likely to be measures to continue improving government finances. Mr. Koizumi has indicated that his strategy is to significantly reduce the number of civil servants and reform the country’s creaking pension system.

The pension system is in particular need of attention. In the first six months of this year, the number of deaths in Japan outnumbered births in what heralds the beginning of a projected population shrinkage of up to 20 percent by 2050.

“The Koizumi Cabinet will have to deal with the huge financial problem and large impact on economic growth stemming from the aging of society,” said Ichizo Yamauchi, executive managing director at Kokusai Asset Management in Tokyo. “It is essential that the pension, health and social welfare systems be fundamentally reformed to be able to cope with the huge numbers of people who will retire as the working population ages.”

Mr. Koizumi also has suggested that his policy focus will shift to Japan’s international role. Progress is expected in coming talks with Washington over the relocation of U.S. forces in Japan to reduce the burden on Okinawa, and rumors have circulated that Mr. Koizumi wants more reform in Japan’s agricultural and trade policy before a Hong Kong meeting of the World Trade Organization in December.

In his Sept. 26 speech to the Diet, he also mentioned overcoming poverty in developing countries, conserving the global environment and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

These themes echo a speech that Mr. Koizumi made at the United Nations in mid-September that was seen as an indication of Japan’s continued hopes to win a permanent seat on the Security Council after a joint bid with Germany, India and Brazil was abandoned because of a lack of support from the United States and outright opposition from China.

To live up to its goal of being a responsible and active player on the global security stage, Japan is expected to keep its nominal force in Iraq beyond the tour of duty that ends Dec. 14. The Iraqi government formally asked Tokyo in August to keep its troops in the southern town of Samawah beyond the deadline, and Mr. Koizumi said in his address last week that he would take that request into consideration when deciding whether to extend the mission.

Relations with Asian neighbors are perhaps the biggest challenge for Mr. Koizumi. The Chinese leadership is appalled by his annual practice of visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where 2 million Japanese killed in war since the 1860s are enshrined, including 14 senior military leaders convicted as Class A war criminals by the Allies after World War II.

Although tensions have eased since Mr. Koizumi’s April visit to the shrine, political ties remain strained over other issues such as disputed undersea gas fields between the two nations and the approval of nationalistic textbooks by Japan’s Ministry of Education.

Mr. Koizumi has called for stronger ties with China and South Korea and has repeated that Japan aims to normalize relations with North Korea once issues such as Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the abduction of Japanese are resolved.

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