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Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008

SDF LAW, GAS TAXES

Fukuda opens Diet, lays out his agenda


Staff writer

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda vowed Friday to start Diet discussions on the establishment of a permanent law that would authorize the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces overseas to engage in peace operations so that Japan can fulfill its duties as a "peace-cooperating nation."

"A peaceful and stable international society is a precious asset to Japan and Japan must do whatever it can to cooperate," Fukuda said during his policy speech that kicked off the 150-day ordinary Diet session. "In order to act swiftly and effectively to (participate in) international peace operations, (I) will start considering the so-called general law."

Fukuda also stressed the need to retain the hikes in the gasoline and other auto-related taxes in order to maintain and repair roads, secure good access to emergency hospitals and to take measures against urban traffic jams.

Amid drastic hikes in gasoline prices, whether to extend the current special auto-related tax rates will be a key issue in the ordinary Diet session as the hikes expire in March.

The government plans to extend the current tax rates on gasoline, roads and motor vehicle tonnage for another 10 years. The rates, adopted in the 1970s on a temporary basis, have remained in place ever since.

But the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, has already begun campaigning to abolish the hiked rates to lower the price of gasoline.

Keeping the auto-related taxes unchanged will be no easy task for Fukuda and the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc in a divided Diet in which the opposition parties control the Upper House. The Cabinet will be weighed down by many pocket-book issues, including the fiscal 2008 budget and related laws.

"I believe that the ruling and opposition parties have a responsibility to the public to hold thorough discussions, produce results and keep moving the government (forward) based on trusting relationships," Fukuda said, seeking cooperation from the opposition camp.

Fukuda emphasized the need for Japan, as host to the July Group of Eight summit Hokkaido, to play a leading role in environmental issues.

Vowing efforts to turn Japan into a "low-carbon society," Fukuda stressed the importance of "innovative technical development" to resolve global warming. He also said Japan must first of all achieve the Kyoto Protocol goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Fukuda declared that he would create a "financial mechanism" to aid developing countries to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions or to take measures against environmental damage caused by global warming, such as droughts and floods.

"Humanity has overcome numerous difficulties and reached the 21st century," Fukuda said. "What we are facing now are not the problems we experienced in the 20th century . . . like wars or the development of nuclear weapons — (we are facing) a crisis in which the Earth as a whole will be destroyed if neglected."

To promote Japan as an open country in a time of globalization, Fukuda said he will draw up a plan to increase the number of foreign students studying in Japan to 300,000, more than double the current number. According to the government-affiliated Japan Student Services Organization, there were 118,498 foreign students studying in Japan as of last May.

"Working closely with industries, schools and the government, (I) would like to expand (the number) of skilled people from abroad to (Japanese) graduate schools and corporations," Fukuda said.

On Tuesday, however, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura announced that long-term foreign residents may have to attain a certain level of Japanese language proficiency.

Unlike his hawkish predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who strongly pressed for amending the war-renouncing Constitution, which was drafted during the Allied Occupation, Fukuda played down nationalist themes and touched only a little on the Constitution at the end of his speech. Last May, under Abe's initiatives, the ruling bloc rammed a controversial referendum bill through the Diet to form a legal framework to revise the charter.

Fukuda, known for his dovish diplomacy, just said he hopes for a thorough discussion on the Constitution in the Diet.

Following the enactment of the special antiterrorism law to enable the Maritime Self-Defense Force to resume its refueling activities in the Indian Ocean for multinational naval ships engaged in counterterrorism operations, Fukuda said Japan will continue "the war on terrorism and engage in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

At the same time, Fukuda added that Japan will assist in the reconstruction of conflict areas.

"Peace operations are not limited to security issues," Fukuda said. "Resolving poverty and improving sanitation are not only humanitarian demands . . . (such activities) will give all people hope and opportunity and pave the way for peace and stability."

Already hit with repeated scandals and problems, including the pension record-keeping debacle and the bribery arrest of an ex-top Defense Ministry official, Fukuda stressed that he would devote himself to regaining the public's trust.

In a year when he hopes to ensure a "a society in which the citizens and consumers play the central role," Fukuda said he will establish a new organization to be in charge of consumer-related issues and create a new related ministerial post.



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