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Editorial: Japan PM Kishida's New Year's speech plays it disappointingly safe

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently held his first press conference of the year at Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture. On coronavirus policy, he said he would "take all possible countermeasures." But his statements throughout were also bland and innocuous, and gave no glimpse of his administration's concrete vision for Japanese society.

    Since late 2021, the country's omicron case numbers have been swelling rapidly. Prime Minister Kishida has said the priority in pandemic policy will shift from border controls to "internal countermeasures." These apparently include raising hospital bed numbers, approving oral medication for COVID-19 patients and bringing vaccine booster shots forward. It is the central government's duty to ensure Japan has enough shots and that vaccination program planning with local governments goes smoothly.

    Meanwhile, the prime minister also said at his press conference that his government would make "audacious moves" to fulfill his election platform promise of realizing a "new capitalism." Kishida also announced a five-year plan to foster entrepreneurs, calling 2022 the "first year of the startup creation era."

    But if all he does is promote the same old public-private investment in new growth-related sectors, this would amount to nothing but an extension of existing policy. Kishida talked a lot on previous occasions about shifting away from neoliberalism and its obsession with growth and efficiency, but at the Ise press conference, he did not use the term "fixing inequality" once.

    If the news conference sums up what his administration is going to work on, this central plank in Kishida's platform may end up broken and discarded.

    On constitutional reform, Kishida said in his opening policy speech to the Diet in December last year that he would "spark broad discussion among the people of Japan." But this, too, he did not mention at Ise.

    The prime minister also appeared to have lost much of his independent flare on foreign relations, an area he has called one of his strengths. He debuted a new catchphrase -- "new age realist diplomacy" -- and stated he wanted to have summit meetings with the leaders of the United States and Australia. However, he did not touch on Japan's China policy at all. As U.S.-China tensions stretch on, how Tokyo will deal with Beijing is Japan's number one foreign policy problem. That Kishida presented no clear direction on the question may have been a sign that he's paying consideration to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's conservative wing, which is pushing a hard line against China.

    At the ordinary Diet session set to start on Jan. 17, Kishida needs to clearly present what kind of society he aims to build, and the policies to get us there. Ruling and opposition parties must debate these matters thoroughly.

    This summer, Japan will have a House of Councillors election. It will be the first time the Kishida administration will have to face the voters' verdict on its accomplishments and management of the government. If the prime minister is thinking of playing it safe between now and then, kicking the hard questions down the road, then his preparedness will come into doubt.

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