Rhetorically, the address contains few surprises. In the opening sections, in which Mr. Aso addressed the principles behind his policies. He spoke of the “once in a century economic crisis” (although he omitted the phrase “emanating from America”). In discussing the work of building a new society and overcome Japan’s third major crisis in the past two centuries, he once again stressed the importance of the virtue of industry, of hard work. To ensure Japan’s continuing prosperity, he said, “It is necessary to build a society in which hard work is rewarded, a society in which senior citizens, the handicapped, and women find it easy to work.” The fact that he needs to group women with the elderly and the handicapped when talking about remaking the Japanese labor force speaks volumes, doesn’t it? As before, when Mr. Aso speaks of the elderly working, he speaks of it as a virtue, as opposed to something that should be kept to a minimum. Once again he gives the impression of a coach giving a pep talk to the Japanese people instead of a leader who understands the hardships his people are facing today. And as the Japanese press has noted, Mr. Aso has joined in the anti-capitalism boom, marking an “about-face from the Koizumi structural reforms.” (Of course, such talk assumes that the LDP has not already moved away from Mr. Koizumi’s agenda, which it clearly has.)
After explaining his principles, Mr. Aso addressed policy specifics, making the case for a three-stage process in making his new Japan. Step one is short-term economic stimulus, as contained in the two 2008 supplementary budgets and the 2009 budget to come. Far from saving Japan, however, the measures come across more as treading water in the midst of a tsunami than as a carefully designed plan to make up for lost foreign consumption. Japan’s fate may depend more on what’s happening in Washington than on what’s happening in Tokyo.
Having explained the government’s stimulus plans, Mr. Aso proceeded to the next phase, the medium-term phase in which the Japanese government is to set its fiscal house in order. This phase entails both the introduction of a consumption tax increase from 2011 — depending on the health of the economy — and cutting waste by lowering expenditures on public corporations and cutting the number of bureaucrats. In a single line Mr. Aso also promised to shift all of the road construction special fund into the general fund, a policy question that readers will recall wore down Prime Minister Fukuda’s resolve in spring 2008. He also promised to accelerate decentralization.
Finally, the medium- to long-term phase of Mr. Aso’s vision calls for a “new growth strategy.” At the heart of this plan is the creation of a world-leading “low carbon society.” He also calls for Japan’s becoming a world leader in medical care for the elderly and rebranding Japan as a country with beautiful countryside, world-famous pop culture and fashion, and delicious, safe food. Connected to this, he promised to introduce a bill during the current Diet session that will trigger the Heisei agricultural reform, with the goal of raising Japan’s self-sufficiency in food production. Mr. Aso’s plan calls for a shift from “ownership” to “use” of agricultural land. He also wants greater use of rice-based products and more production of wheat and soya.
Mr. Aso also promised to remake the Japanese welfare state, starting with the pensions system. He apologized for the still-unresolved pensions scandal while stating that the government is making steady progress in cleaning up the mess. He addressed concerns about the declining quality of medical care, promising an increase of doctors working in the public service. Near the end of the speech, he actually mentioned education reform, which may be the most important piece of any effort to rejuvenate the Japanese economy and implement a “new growth strategy.” Mr. Aso celebrated the introduction from April 2009 of a ten-percent increase in the number of math and science classes and new restrictions on cell phones in schools, but he actually says very little in this section about reform to how Japan educates its children. After mentioning forthcoming changes, he devotes the rest of the education section to discussing the achievements of Japanese scientists and researchers. A serious plan for reforming Japanese economy and society would treat the education system as more than an afterthought.
Mr. Aso concluded the speech by discussing a three-pronged foreign policy based on the US-Japan alliance, relations with Japan’s Asian neighbors, and the UN and other international organizations, in short an approach wholly consistent with Japan’s foreign policy mainstream and not altogether different from the DPJ. Mr. Aso and Mr. Ozawa might emphasize different legs of the three-legged foreign policy, but the differences are less than meet the eye. Mr. Aso did speak at some length about cooperating internationally to promote freedom and prosperity and combat terror and piracy, but his appeal lacked the same spirit that his calls to promote an arc of freedom and prosperity once had.
Bringing his speech to a close, Mr. Aso took a swipe at the DPJ for slowing down the political process and dismissed the talk of pessismists, who he says ought to look back and see how Japan rebuilt itself after the war into the very model of a high-tech, culturally attractive society.
There is very little of note in this speech. After mentioning the need to make it easier for women to work (see above), Mr. Aso offers few specifics for how to equalize the Japanese workplace. He has no real solutions to reversing demographic decline. Education reform is given a passing mention. While Mr. Aso is right to emphasize the “rebranding” of Japan, starting in stagnant rural areas, he says very little about how this transformation will actually be achieved. As is typical of these policy speeches, the connection between policy inputs and the desired outcomes is more often assumed than explicitly demonstrated.
Mr. Aso seemed more willing to acknowledge the extent of the economic collapse facing Japan today, but he also seemed as defiantly optimistic as ever, convinced of Japan’s ability to overcome all challenges.
It is possible, however, that the current crisis may be too much for Mr. Aso and his weary LDP.