Abe vows to prioritize rebuilding economy at Diet

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday his priority is to rebuild the deflation-hit economy, as political party leaders questioned his government over its policy vision on the first day of Diet questioning.

Abe also said Japan's status as a pacifist state will not change amid frayed ties with China and South Korea over historical issues, and he sounded positive about restarting the nuclear reactors idled after the Fukushima nuclear crisis triggered by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

"We will make sure Japanese people can feel the benefits of economic growth in their daily lives," Abe said in response to a question from Banri Kaieda, leader of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Kaieda criticized Abe for what he termed as belittling the country's pacifist stance by seeking more security roles abroad, and failing to address economic inequality, saying the administration has given preferential treatment to the corporate sector.

"The yen's weakness is translating into soaring fuel and raw material costs, and putting pressure on people's lives," Kaieda said.

In his policy speech delivered Friday, the start of the 150-day Diet session, Abe said he aims to create a "virtuous cycle" of increases in corporate earnings, wages and consumption to beat nearly two decades of deflation, and to withstand the impact of a sales tax hike in April.

The Diet is expected to deliberate two state budget bills, along with those related to the country's growth strategy, the third arrow of the "Abenomics" policy mix that has helped boost Japanese share prices and weaken the yen.

Kaieda questioned the seriousness of the government's push for dialogue with China and South Korea, given that Abe paid homage at Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals along with the war dead, and draw a comparison between Japan-China relations and those of Britain and Germany before World War I.

Abe said Japan will remain a pacifist state built on the suffering of other Asian nations, and that his government has been actively seeking dialogue with China and South Korea. "We hope they will respond," the premier said.

On Japan's new energy policy, Abe indicated Japan needs to bring its nuclear plants back online, but reiterated the reactors have to clear stringent safety standards set after the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

"Our dependence on foreign fossil fuel is higher than that in the oil crisis (in 1973). In such reality, we cannot just say 'We are doing away with nuclear power generation,'" Abe said.

After consultations with the ruling bloc, the government is expected to seek Cabinet approval for a new basic energy plan that will state the future of nuclear power generation in Japan.

Atomic power generation is one of the main issues being debated by candidates in the campaign for the Feb. 9 Tokyo gubernatorial election. Among the candidates, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa has been calling for a society without nuclear power.

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba and Japan Restoration Party Secretary General Yorihisa Matsuno also asked the government about how it intends to deal with the economy, reconstruction work following the 2011 disaster, social security reform and defense.

The session, designed for each political party to pose questions about the speeches delivered Friday by Abe and three other Cabinet ministers, will continue Wednesday.

The issue of collective self-defense will likely come into focus during the regular Diet session through June 22, but Abe said only that the government "will consider what to do" after it receives a report from a panel of experts commissioned by the prime minister to discuss the matter.

Whether Japan should exercise the right to collective self-defense to defend allies under armed attack remains a controversial issue, as the New Komeito party, the coalition partner of the LDP headed by Abe, remains reluctant.

While such a right exists under international law, engaging in collective self-defense is generally seen in Japan as going beyond the principle of self-defense allowed under the pacifist Constitution.

Abe has expressed willingness to work with "responsible" opposition parties to pursue policy goals.

Your Party leader Yoshimi Watanabe, who agreed with Abe on cooperation, said Tuesday that the issues of collective self-defense and constitutional reform will "inevitably" be included as potential agendas.