This year's regular Diet session opened on Jan. 22. The ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will try to ensure that the legislature approves the fiscal 2018 budget draft at an early date, and regards work-style reform bills, which would set stricter upper limits on overtime, as a key issue during the session.
At the same time, full-scale debate will likely start on constitutional revisions, which the prime minister and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leadership aim to have the Diet propose as early as autumn.
Hence the current Diet session is a crucial one that could shape the future of Japan.
But the legislature, preoccupied with these issues, has a tendency to forget about the declining birthrate and aging population, which are serious matters.
As the Mainichi Shimbun has pointed out in the past, the year 2025, when all baby boomers will be aged 75 or older, is drawing near. At the same time, the birthrate is dropping, which means the number of working people who support the country's social security system is decreasing. No time should be wasted in tackling this problem.
Prime Minister Abe called the declining birthrate and aging population, as well as the North Korea issue, a "national crisis," and cited them as his reason for dissolving the House of Representatives and calling a snap general election last fall. However, judging from the draft of next fiscal year's state budget, the government does not appear to be planning effective measures to tackle the problem from a long-term perspective.
The general account of the fiscal 2018 budget draft has hit a record, for the sixth consecutive year, at over 97 trillion yen. The outstanding debts incurred by the national and local governments surpass 1.1 quadrillion yen.
As part of efforts to tackle the declining birthrate and aging population, the government has approved what it calls a "2-trillion-yen package" centering on making higher education free and increasing wages for nursing care workers, and prioritizing budget appropriations intensively for these projects. The direction of the policy is not bad, but the package gives off the impression that the government intends to take only superficial countermeasures.
Needless to say, the Diet needs to deliberate the budget draft from a long-term perspective.
For example, the focus on medical services should be shifted from just curing diseases to supporting people's day-to-day existence as Japanese people's lifespan is expected to extend to 100 years. Questions also remain as to how to cope with a flood of people mainly in the metropolitan area who will soon need, but will not be able to receive, nursing care services.
It is obvious that the problem cannot be solved simply by reducing social security benefits; members of the public will inevitably have to shoulder a greater financial burden to support the social security system. And yet, the current government is reluctant to implement policy measures unpopular with the public even though the administration has a stable political foundation due to Abe's predominance.
The falling birthrate and aging of society has led to population decline. If the current situation continues, Japan's population will dip to 80 million-plus by the 2060s. The issue could have a serious impact on the country's economy as a whole, the management of local bodies and eventually nation-building efforts.
Some companies already face serious workforce shortages, which is why the current mandatory retirement age set at 65 should be reviewed, and a system under which foreigners can work under adequate conditions should be considered. As the Mainichi Shimbun has pointed out, there are numerous measures worth considering.
The Diet should set up a permanent panel, such as a special committee, in which ruling and opposition parties regularly discuss the issue of population decline. The possibility appears slim that the House of Representatives will be dissolved this year for a snap general election. This makes the regular Diet session that has just kicked off into a good opportunity for the ruling and opposition parties to rise above their conflicts and buckle down on long-term challenges.
Of course, North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs and other diplomatic and security issues are important challenges lawmakers face in the regular session. Deliberations on growing defense spending are closely related to discussions on what Japan's exclusively defensive policy means, which ties into debate on revisions to war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.
The Diet has not yet gotten to the bottom of favoritism scandals involving two school operators -- Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen and Okayama-based Kake Educational Institution. The government must not assume that these cases are closed.
Although there are so many issues to deal with during the Diet session, the governing bloc has attempted to reduce the time allocated to opposition parties for questioning and cut back on the prime minister's attendance at committee meetings. The ruling coalition has also taken advantage of its overwhelming majority to steamroll bills through the legislature in disregard of debate -- a stance that remains incomprehensibly unchanged.
In the meantime, the opposition camp continues to be beleaguered by conflict. Talks between the Democratic Party (DP) and the Party of Hope to form a parliamentary alliance collapsed following internal protests. Opposition parties should reshape their strategies and demonstrate to the public that they are strictly monitoring the government's policy measures.
If the Abe administration attempts to delay the establishment of countermeasures against population decline, opposition parties should propose specific measures and launch debate with the government.
Prime Minister Abe should not just regard opposition parties as his enemies, but be open to accepting proposals made by opposition parties if the proposals are beneficial to citizens. Abe's capacity as prime minister will be tested throughout the Diet session.
Population decline is an issue that will affect the future of younger generations. The entire nation should share a sense of crisis over the matter and closely monitor Diet debate.