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Editorial: Abe should work with opposition to tackle falling birthrate, aging society

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a policy speech at the outset of this year's regular Diet session that convened on Jan. 22, calling the declining birthrate and aging population a "national crisis," just as he did during the campaign for the House of Representatives election in October last year. "To overcome the falling birthrate and the graying of society, we must vigorously carry out reforms of our country's social security system," he said in the speech.

However, the only specific measure to tackle "the national crisis" that the Abe government has laid out is a change in the use of the revenue expected from the planned consumption tax hike from the current 8 percent to 10 percent to make preschool education free. This is far from enough.

The prime minister is placing top priority on "work-style reform," or changes in the way people work, among issues during the current Diet session. It is understandable that the Abe government aims to tighten restrictions on work hours and eliminate the income gap between regular and non-regular workers. It is highly questionable, however, for the government to propose a regulatory bill on work hours packaged together with a system under which high-income workers that engage in "highly professional" tasks would be exempt from such regulations. The move has raised concerns that the exemption could force some workers to work even longer hours. If these two issues are to be separated, it would certainly deepen discussion between ruling and opposition parties.

Slogans such as "Human resource development revolution" and "productivity revolution," which the Abe government has come up with recently, represent policy measures aimed at making full use of a limited labor force to revitalize the economy on the assumption that the birthrate will remain low and that the population will continue to age. At the same time, the "dynamic engagement of all citizens," another slogan the administration has promoted, has not been adequately evaluated.

In policy speeches that he delivered in the Diet up until last year, Abe repeatedly provoked opposition parties, making statements such as that opposition parties "do nothing but criticize" the government. However, he refrained from such provocations in the latest speech. It is clear that he cannot overcome the declining birthrate and aging society if the prime minister sticks to his political style of just distinguishing allies from foes.

At the beginning of his Jan. 22 speech, Abe mentioned Kenjiro Yamakawa, who fought newly founded Meiji government forces 150 years ago as a member of Byakkotai, a dissident group of young samurai of the Aizu domain, and was later appointed as president of Tokyo Imperial University, the predecessor of the University of Tokyo, after the Meiji Restoration. Abe, whose constituency is located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, often talks about the Meiji Restoration from the perspective of the Choshu domain -- the western half of what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture. Maybe the prime minister touched on the former samurai of the Aizu domain to show his reconciliatory attitude toward opposition parties.

Regarding his long-cherished goal of constitutional revisions, Prime Minister Abe only expressed hope that each party will propose specific plans to the Diet and that the discussion on the issue will move forward.

His speech also hinted at his confidence after his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s victory in the 2017 lower house election. Abe may intend to play it safe without taking risks until the LDP presidential election in September 2018. If re-elected as party leader, he may be able to stay in power until 2021.

The prime minister urged opposition parties to join hands with the governing bloc in working on long-term challenges. The fact that Abe refrained from provoking the opposition represents a step forward.

The government needs to respond to the declining birthrate and aging population, and eventual population decline from a long-term perspective. The administration is expected to tackle these issues just as Abe declared in his latest policy speech.

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