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Gov't, opposition clash over inadequate Japanese pension system estimate

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso are seen at a House of Councillors Audit Committee session on June 10, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- The government and the opposition camp clashed head-on in the Diet on June 10 over an estimate made by the Financial Services Agency (FSA) that each elderly couple needs some 20 million yen in savings to live until the age of 95.

Opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) grilled the government over the FSA estimate in a bid to make it a point of contention during campaigning for the upcoming upper house election. They had a heated debate with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who emphasized the sustainability of the public pension system.

In a House of Councillors Committee on Audit session on June 10, Abe acknowledged that the phrase in question "was inaccurate and caused misunderstanding."

"Was what you call a 'system that is secure for the next 100 years' a lie? The public is furious, wondering what you meant by saying couples must have a 20 million yen nest egg," said Renho, deputy leader of the CDP.

She was referring to what the ruling coalition characterized as "a public pension system that would be secure for the next 100 years" when it was reformed in 2004.

In response, Abe repeatedly said, "The phrase, which could be interpreted as meaning an elderly couple must have 20 million yen in savings, was an inappropriate one that caused misunderstanding and anxiety to the public."

At the same time, the prime minister stressed that a pension program that will be secure for the next 100 years "wasn't a lie."

An opposition party legislator jeered at the premier saying his reply was "too long."

Abe then struck back at the legislator saying, "Unless I thoroughly respond to questions, it would only intensify public anxiety. It's wrong to try to block me from providing an explanation." The deliberations were then temporarily stalled.

Prime Minister Abe is wary of the problem because of a bitter experience in the past. During his first stint as prime minister, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered a crushing defeat in the 2007 upper house election after the Abe government came under fire over the loss of a massive amount of public pension premium payment records. He was subsequently forced to step down because of his poor health.

There are also growing concerns within the ruling camp that the issue could adversely affect the LDP-Komeito coalition's performance in the upcoming election.

At an LDP executive meeting June 10, an attendee representing the party's upper house caucus expressed concerns about the matter, saying, "If the issue reminds voters of the loss of pension premium payment records, the upper house election will be rough. I'd like you (PM Abe) to properly deal with the matter."

The issue has invigorated the opposition camp. "The FSA has released valuable material. It'll be a clear point of contention," said a senior member of the CDP.

In the first half of the ongoing regular Diet session, opposition parties pointed out that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry's labor statistics irregularities showed that apparent achievements made through the "Abenomics" economic policy mix promoted by the Abe government were false. However, the opposition camp's attack did not produce effective results.

While the Abe Cabinet is enjoying relatively high approval ratings, the opposition camp is scrambling to take full advantage of the fresh ammunition that has emerged ahead of the upper house race.

In the June 10 upper house audit panel meeting, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso admitted that he'd read only part of the FSA report detailing the estimate, stirring criticism from the opposition bloc.

"I read the first part of it. I haven't read the entire report," said Aso.

After the session, Renho told reporters, "Someone who hasn't read the report is saying illogical things."

Based on the Internal Affairs and Communication Ministry's 2017 family budget survey, the FSA estimated that on top of their pension benefits, the average elderly couple whose husband is aged at least 65 and wife is aged at least 60 will need about an additional 50,000 yen every month to live.

The report says that elderly couples need to make up for such shortages with their own financial assets such as bank savings. Specifically, the report points out that such couples will need to spend roughly 13 million yen of their savings over a 20-year period and approximately 20 million yen over 30 years to make up for shortages of funds to cover their living expenses.

(Japanese original by Masahiro Tateno and Daisuke Nohara, Political News Department)

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