Press Conference by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda
[Opening remarks by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda]
The Diet session came to an end today. As an extraordinary Diet session, this has been a very long session spanning 128 days, and on this account alone, it must have caused inconvenience to a great many people and I would like to thank these people for their cooperation.
I think it is fair to say that this session took so many days on account of the unprecedented Diet situation. With the firm belief that this situation should not be allowed to affect the people's lives or the nation's diplomacy, I grappled with the situation as well as I could. It was a situation that can be aptly described by the expression "groping our way through Diet management." However, the Replenishment Support Special Measures Law was finally enacted, allowing the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean to resume based on its provisions. When I think of how the Japanese government's inability to carry out its will concerning foreign affairs as a result of the Diet situation and the political climate would have a rather negative influence on Japan's relations with other countries, quite frankly, I am happy that we have been able to avoid such an outcome.
When I look back now, I believe that the legislation we have enacted was realized rather smoothly, which is of great significance from the standpoint of the people's lives. Some of the bills passed are directly related to the people's lives, an example being laws concerning safety regulations, which promote the prevention of accidents caused by products. If we include legislation drafted by the Cabinet and by Diet members, a total of 26 new laws were enacted during this session. These also include the law to provide new support measures for Japanese war orphans displaced in China and the Revised Political Funds Control Law.
Today, just a short while ago in fact, I met with some of the victims who contracted hepatitis through blood products. Some of the bereaved family members were also there. There have been lawsuits related to hepatitis contraction through blood products, and with regard to this matter, a members' bill was enacted into law by the Diet. The hepatitis patients I met with today looked very happy, so I was happy too. However, a great many things still remain to be done with regard to the issue of hepatitis contraction through blood products, and I intend to get them done steadily in the upcoming Diet session.
As I have mentioned, although it has taken time, I feel that I have done the things I should have done. One reason why these bills were enacted was that the opposition parties also had a sense of crisis with regard to Diet management that can be summed up as "to go on this way will be no good." In that sense, I would like to thank the opposition parties as well for their deep understanding.
At the press conference that I held at the beginning of this year, I said that, "My wish is to make 2008 the starting year of Japan's shift toward becoming 'a society in which the people and the consumers play leading roles.'" In order to realize this goal, we must ensure that all the systems that form the basis of the people's lives, beginning with the pension system, the medical care and nursing care systems, and a system for implementing measures for the declining birthrate, are dependable and designed in a well-thought-out manner. Accordingly, I will set up a national commission to discuss the modality of social security this month. We will gather people from every sector and every layer of society, including corporate managers, labor groups, consumers, and women, to conduct discussions from the standpoint of the representatives of the people.
I also hope that the opposition parties will take part in these discussions, if possible. But if this cannot be realized, I am thinking of holding a forum to activate Diet discussions. I would like each and every one of the Diet members to conduct such discussions while putting these issues above party interests and party politics.
In three days, the ordinary Diet session will be convened. We are adjourning now for two days, but during the next ordinary Diet session, we must proceed with deliberations on matters of importance to the people's lives, such as ones on the budget formulation and budget-related bills. These issues are directly related to the people's lives. If we consider the decline in stock prices, the uncertain outlook for the economy, and external factors such as the rapid rise in the price of crude oil, any delay in the deliberations over budget-related bills could have a devastating effect on the people's lives. That is why I would sincerely like to ask the opposition parties for their understanding and cooperation.
At the same time, I am acutely aware that we will also have to provide explanations of our policies as clearly as possible.
I intend to tackle various issues we face with a determination to resolve each of them steadily, one by one. Accordingly, I ask the people to take the circumstances I have outlined into consideration, and I ask for the understanding and cooperation of the people of Japan.
I will now take your questions.
QUESTION 1: In the political party leaders' debate between yourself and President of the Democratic Party of Japan Ichiro Ozawa, you said that the two of you were in agreement over the point that politics should be based on the people's standpoint. Please tell us how you intend to proceed in specific terms in partnership or cooperation with the DPJ, now that the ordinary Diet session will be starting soon, on issues such as the provisional rate of tax on gasoline, the permanent law concerning overseas dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), and the pension system reform.
Some experts point out that even a single mistake in the decision on the provisional tax rate could create a rush to buy gasoline, together with a slump in stock prices. I would like to focus my question on these points.
PRIME MINISTER FUKUDA: With the Diet in its current situation, the intentions of the DPJ, the leading party in the House of Councillors, are indeed extremely important. It is a basic matter that we will hold discussions with the DPJ in a manner that would allow us to gain their agreement.
If these things cannot be decided in the Diet, the Japanese people will be the ones who will suffer inconvenience as a result. I am sure that the DPJ is considering this point as a matter of course. And in fact, I have expectations that we will end up finding out, once we talk, that we understand each other.
If the provisional tax were to be abolished in April, some may certainly think, on the one hand, that this would be good because the price of gasoline would become cheaper. But there is also a possibility that it would influence the people's lives in other ways. How are we considering this?
Specifically, how can we obtain the funds to cover snow removal expenses in winter, bridge repair expenses, and road maintenance expenses? The tax revenue is also used for the improvement of roads used by children commuting to and from school and for removing bottleneck railway crossings.
If tax revenues collected by local governments become insufficient, they will eventually be unable to carry out their measures. At the national level, too, the effects of the shortfall will have to be borne disproportionately by the social security and education budgets.
Gasoline is cheap in the United States, but the current price of gasoline in Japan is still quite low compared with other industrialized countries.
When we consider environmental issues, I wonder if things can simply be settled by saying that it is better for gasoline to be cheaper and so we should lower gasoline fees. We have to consider environmental countermeasures at the same time.
Japan will be hosting the Toyako Summit this year, and we are considering whether or not this issue can be settled merely on the basis of "Japan, a country of cheap gasoline."
My thinking is that probably the issue cannot be completely settled under the scenario that the present high price of gasoline is temporary, so let's make it cheaper. People also have to consider that crude oil shortages and sharp rises in the price of crude oil may continue for some time from now on, or even that they may continue on a permanent basis.
In any case, the issue will be discussed at the Diet, and during that time, the government will give an explanation as thoroughly as possible so that a bill for maintaining the current tax rate could be enacted within this year.
What kind of specific measures are you considering in order to prevent the reoccurrence of disasters caused by contaminated biomedical products?
PRIME MINISTER FUKUDA: There would be nothing better than if we could eradicate all drug-induced disasters. However, the reality is that so-called miracle drugs often have side effects. So I think it is important to disclose information that indicates the degree of risk that new drugs entail and the sort of things that may happen when people take such drugs. I think it is justifiable for people to use drugs on the basis of the understanding that they gain from such information.
How much risk is involved when individuals take drugs, and what kind of systems should be in place to deal with the problems that can occur? These questions relate to matters that, I believe, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is handling. It is essential for us to think about whether there are better ways to deal with such issues.
Even so, our highest priority consideration remains how to prevent the occurrence of drug-induced diseases. Tackling the job of preventing the recurrence of drug-induced diseases is extremely important, and I believe it should command our utmost efforts.
In addition, we must give consideration to the therapeutic goods administration that has led to the occurrence of problems up to now. At the very least, it should not happen that those in the administration judge things exclusively from an administrative standpoint while disregarding the standpoints of the patients and the people. This is a fundamental and basic matter. We must make efforts to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.
Also, it seems that the DPJ is drawing up its basic strategy on the basis that a general election will take place as early as this spring, with the possibility in mind to submit a resolution censuring the Prime Minister in the House of Councillors. Don't you think it will be necessary to dissolve the House of Representatives if and when a motion of censure passes in the House of Councillors? Those are my questions.
PRIME MINISTER FUKUDA: The House of Representatives will be dissolved at some future time. The question is when. We have to choose the timing. When would be a good time? We will dissolve the House of Representatives sometime, but that dissolution should not affect the present economy or the people's lives. We should avoid choosing such timing.
I think the economy is in a delicate situation at present, and this being the case, there is even greater reason to attach importance to the point that the upcoming budget has the potential to strike a blow against the people's lives. For this reason, I feel that we should not move to dissolve the Diet so simply. We will have to choose the timing with care.
We will be hosting the Toyako Summit at the beginning of July of this year, and before that, we will be hosting the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV), which will be attended by many African leaders. On both of these occasions, important issues will be discussed, and as such, we have to give thorough and comprehensive consideration to the timing of the dissolution of the House of Representatives and the general election.
PRIME MINISTER FUKUDA: We must definitely solve these problems. If they are not solved, the pension system will collapse. Will the people continue to pay money into an unreliable pension system? No, they won't. That should never happen. Accordingly, we must solve these problems at any cost. And as much as possible, we should establish a new and truly trustworthy system. We have to consider that as well.
To complete the computer-aided name identification process by the end of March is the policy that was decided on July 5 of last year. This policy remains unchanged, and in fact, the work is progressing steadily. As for the people whose names are identified by the end of March, we will send out the special notifications using the Pension Special Notification Service to inform them of their payment history and ask them to confirm the details described therein against their own records. Through the confirmation process, more cases of unidentified records may come to light. We will then conduct these procedures repeatedly.
In April, we will expand the scope of the special notification service to cover all pension subscribers. This phase will be completed by October. By carrying out this procedure, new cases of unidentified records will come to light. Again, we will carry out the procedures repeatedly.
What we are doing now is to check each and every one of the unidentified pension records, and therefore, it is very labor-intensive work. But we cannot abandon the effort just because the work is far from easy. We cannot ignore the pension of even one specific individual. That should not happen. And we will do our very best to see that it does not happen.
The other day I visited a social insurance office and observed the actual work performed on site. The staff were working very hard, confirming details by listening to inquiries from members of the public, often taking several hours for a single individual, and by making their own inquiries accordingly in order to obtain the required data. Carrying out this sort of operation is laborious work, but it must be followed through.
PRIME MINISTER FUKUDA: This is something that has seldom been done up to now. So in principle, it is something that should not happen very often. I do not have an equation to allow me to say, "I will do this on such and such an occasion," by making assumptions about the situation in the future.
We have other things we should do before coming to that. Namely, we will first have to try to persuade the opposition and make efforts to explain our ideas to them so that such a situation does not occur. That is the only way. I do not know how things will turn out, but a second vote is a matter that should be considered only at the appropriate time. Now is not an appropriate time to say I will do this or I will not do that about such things.
PRIME MINISTER FUKUDA: Firstly, we have to examine the social security services that will be in need in the years to come. In particular, Japan is undergoing a rapid aging of its population, and we also face the problem of a low birthrate, which is the root cause of the aging society. So there is the question of how the systems for solving such problems should be.
And then, there is also the question of whether, under circumstances in which there are many systems, we are to focus on the pension system, or we are to steadily mount individual responses. I would like the commission to discuss issues of this sort in a straightforward manner.
Of course, services necessarily involve costs. How great a cost must we bear and how great a cost can we afford to bear? The answer to these questions will become clear from the commission's discussions, I believe.
For example -- maybe I have explained this before -- would a low-welfare, low-burden system be good? Or would a Japanese-style medium-welfare, medium-burden system be good? Or do the majority of people think that a high-welfare, high-burden system like that of Sweden would be good? I expect that answers to questions of this sort can be selected based on the discussions led by the commission.
We also have to keep in mind that with the progress of the aging society, if the burden is kept "medium", as is the case at present, then the quality of services may decline. The discussions will range over such problems, too.
Then again, in what way will the costs of the services be shared? Should social security be funded through the consumption tax, through other taxes, or through insurance? We must consider the issue from various angles. Now, I am not saying definitively that the consumption tax is the answer. But I believe that the reason why many industrialized countries, apart from the United States, are paying for social security through a consumption tax is because this method has its merits. However, this still does not mean that I am saying that the consumption tax specifically will do.