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Saturday, Jan. 27, 2007

Abe opens Diet with pledges to fix education, Constitution

Staff writer

In his Diet session-opening address Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to accelerate the nation's economic growth, while pinpointing as his key policy goals his resolve to reform the education system and amend the Constitution.

"I will push forward powerfully with new growth strategies so the public can actually feel the growth," Abe said, referring to his support for research and development and boosting trade with Asia.

Abe hammered home his reform goals, which also includes fiscal and administrative revisions, as the means to create "a beautiful Japan" full of energy and opportunity. But his rhetoric-laden 40-minute speech was short on specifics.

Calling education reform "the priority" of his Cabinet, Abe vowed to submit three relevant bills during the ordinary session. The bills would introduce a license-renewal system for teachers, reinforce government supervision over boards of education and create the position of vice principal at schools.

"To secure for all children the chance to achieve at the necessary academic level, I will seek the revival of the public education system by reviewing the current policy of shorter school hours while strengthening proficiency in our own language, and supporting science and mathematics and moral education," Abe said.

Earlier this week, Abe's advisory panel on education reform submitted a report that recommended increasing the number of class hours by 10 percent and toughening disciplinary measures to deal with perceived problems at public schools ranging from bullying to declining academic performance and morals.

Addressing another of his key policy goals, the prime minister said steps must be taken during the current Diet session to amend the Constitution, and called for passage of a national referendum bill to outline Constitution revision procedures.

"We have to deepen discussions about a revision of the Constitution that shapes and outlines this country," Abe said.

As for economic growth measures, he cited the need to create innovative technologies, products and services, and to boost productivity.

To that end, Abe said the government will outline measures by the end of May that include support for research and development of medicines to treat cancer and senile dementia, as well as achieve global standards for patent systems.

Abe added that in April, the government will introduce a program to increase productivity, and compile another program by the end of May to encourage exchanges of people, goods and capital between Japan and the rest of Asia.

By focusing on economic growth, Abe is seeking to allay worries about huge fiscal debts that threaten to lead to a sharp rise in the consumption tax, his aides said.

Abe made no mention of the consumption tax, only reiterating that he will initiate debate on the nation's entire tax system in the fall or later -- after the Upper House election in July. Hampered by falling voter support, even speaking of a tax increase before an election would be a huge political misstep.

Abe's growth strategies are also aimed at answering criticism from the Democratic Party of Japan that the LDP lacks policies to address the increasing number of low-wage earners, aides said.

Abe also pledged to address the mounting fiscal deficit that has saddled the country for years. "Our fiscal situation continues to be extremely severe. My Cabinet has not changed its basic policy to promote cuts in fiscal spending and stop wasting tax money," Abe said.

The prime minister also vowed to slash more than 19,000 public service jobs in five years to help cut the fiscal deficit.

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The Japan Times

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