Japan PM vows to restore trust, enact bold reforms

TOKYO, Reuters

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in his debut performance in parliament, pledged on Monday to take politics to the people to restore their battered trust and to enact painful reforms to fix Japan’s long-stagnant economy.

In a nod to the need to mend fences with mainland China, Koizumi termed relations with Beijing as among Tokyo’s most important two-way ties and vowed to cooperate with the Asian rival.

Koizumi’s policy speech was liberally laced with the reformist rhetoric that has made him the darling of those who hope he’ll deliver on promises of tough changes needed to pry the economy out of its decade-long stupor.

“The most important issue is to rebuild the economy and to create a Japanese society filled with self-confidence and pride,” said Koizumi, looking weary after less than two weeks in office.

“Adopting a stance that does not fear pain, does not flinch at the barriers of vested interests, and is not shackled by the experience of the past…I want to establish an economic and social system suitable for the 21st century.”

Financial markets as well as Japanese voters, both of whom have given Koizumi rave reviews in his first days in office, had been looking to the speech for clues as to whether the maverick politician — propelled to power by rank-and-file ruling party members — will match reformist rhetoric with concrete action.

Asian neighbors are also watching closely to see whether Koizumi, known for his nationalist tinge, will work to repair ties frayed by disputes over war-time history and modern trade.

Economists said Koizumi was on the right track, but noted he still needed to put more flesh on his bold-sounding proposals.

“Everyone says ‘reform’ but they actually want to maintain the status quo,” Koizumi told reporters after his speech in an acknowledgment of the difficult battle he faces.

Mindful of voters’ ire at his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) penchant for scandal, Koizumi pledged to restore public trust in politics by making the policy process transparent and expanding the scope for the people to participate.

“Through dialogue…I want to realize a ‘politics of trust,’ he said, in an echo of the first policy speech by his predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, whose scandal-tainted year in office saw his popularity plummet to single-digit record lows.

It was Mori’s vanishing public support that prompted LDP lawmakers to decide to hold an early party election to replace him ahead of a key election for parliament’s Upper House in July.