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Leaders face off on Constitution, tax ahead of lower house race

The leaders of Japan's major political parties clashed Sunday
over the future of the country's Constitution and tax policy, two
days before the start of official campaigning for the Oct. 22 House
of Representatives election.
The eight-way debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo
was dominated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic
Party, who has been in power since December 2012, and charismatic
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, leader of the newly formed Party of Hope.
Both are going into the election on a conservative platform and
support amending the 70-year-old Constitution for the first time.
But they disagreed on what should be the focus of the amendment
debate, including how to reconcile the Constitution's war-renouncing
Article 9 with the expanding role of the Self-Defense Forces.
Abe repeated that each party's position should be discussed
"constructively" in constitutional commissions in the Diet before an
amendment is officially proposed and put to a nationwide referendum.
He had suggested in May that in addition to the existing clauses
of Article 9, explicit mention of the SDF's status should be added to
remove any question that the existence of the SDF is unconstitutional.
Koike, who briefly served as defense minister in 2007 during
Abe's first administration, expressed "major doubts" about that
proposal during the debate.
"(Abe's) talk of adding a third clause...could reverse the
relationship between the Defense Ministry and SDF," she warned.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the LDP's junior coalition partner
Komeito, also expressed caution over the idea, saying the country is
still divided over whether to put the SDF's role in the Constitution.
While the LDP has made constitutional amendment one of its goals
since its founding in 1955, Komeito, which is backed by the
lay-Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, has always been more cautious.
"Without the full understanding of the public, it would be
premature to ask them (to vote on an amendment)," Yamaguchi said
earlier Sunday on a Japanese television program.
But he reiterated in the debate that his party's coalition with
the LDP will remain solid, even though in the Tokyo metropolitan
assembly Komeito has cooperated with a regional party backing Koike.
Abe has said he will resign if the LDP and Komeito together fail
to secure a majority of seats.
He promised to "fully protect the country through stable
politics," while Koike vowed to "bring hope to Japan" by putting its
citizens first.
Koike said her party would postpone an increase of the
consumption tax from 8 to 10 percent planned for October 2019,
"because economic benefits are not being felt by all Japanese people."
Abe attacked the Party of Hope's alternative plan to obtain
revenue by taxing major companies' retained earnings, saying such a
move would drive enterprise out of Japan.
Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who doubles as finance minister,
has recently said the idea floated by Koike would be regarded as
double taxation if companies are required to pay income taxes twice
on the same earnings.
The Party of Hope has said it aims to field at least 233
candidates, or half the 465 seats in the House of Representatives, to
challenge the ruling coalition for the reins of government. But as of
Sunday the party was still at least two dozen candidates short.
"We're doing the last bit of work," Koike said.
Koike has repeatedly said she will not resign as governor to run
for the lower house. She said her party will pick its preferred prime
minister after the election, "reflecting on the results."
Koike also insisted her party is internally strong despite
having picked up more than 100 candidates from the collapsing main
opposition Democratic Party, which unlike the Party of Hope opposed
the Abe administration's controversial security legislation that has
expanded the role of the SDF.
"At a time when the North Korea situation is so severe, we have
agreed to go forward with real politics," Koike said.
The Party of Hope will compete in many electoral districts not
only with the LDP, but with the Constitutional Democratic Party of
Japan, established as a refuge for lawmakers from the Democratic
Party's liberal wing who could not agree with the Party of Hope's
conservative platform.
CDPJ leader Yukio Edano said in the debate that his party is
against mentioning the SDF in the Constitution because while the
forces' existence is constitutionally sound, their expanded role
under the Abe administration's security legislation is not.
"We cannot agree with an amendment to the Constitution that
would approve the unconstitutional security legislation," Edano said,
a stance shared by Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii.
The debate also included Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui of the Japan
Innovation Party, Tadatomo Yoshida of the Social Democratic Party and
Masashi Nakano of the Party for Japanese Kokoro, whose former leader
Kyoko Nakayama left to join the Party of Hope.
Democratic Party leader Seiji Maehara, who has said he will run
as an independent, sat out the debate, as did Ichiro Ozawa of the
Liberal Party, which has also effectively split.
While repeating that he had called the election to get a fresh
mandate on his administration's North Korea policy and its proposal
to change how tax revenue is spent, Abe again found himself on the
defensive about cronyism allegations that saw support for his Cabinet
plunge earlier this year.
He again denied claims that he had swayed the government's
selection of Kake Educational Institution, helmed by a close friend
of his, to open a veterinarian medicine department in a specially
deregulated zone, but admitted he "should have been more careful."
"There are things I should reflect on, but not one person has
said I was involved," Abe said, citing testimony from officials.