It's the sort of reform that entails a lot of pain, but can't be avoided.
So it was good news that the ruling Democratic Party of Japan reached an agreement on June 15 over legislation for integrated tax and social security reform with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito.
The agreement has left many important policy issues unresolved, and it is not clear whether the DPJ will be able to achieve a consensus on the legislation through the intra-party policymaking process.
Still, we strongly hope this deal will mark the beginning of an end to the nation's political gridlock due to the inability of politicians to make gutsy decisions.
The government's spending on pension, health care and nursing care keeps swelling, just as the proportion of elderly people keeps rising.
The growing ranks of low-paid non-regular workers badly need policy support, as do people struggling to raise children with no kith or kin to turn to for help.
Providing aid to such people requires a new revenue source, but it would be irresponsible to finance welfare programs with borrowing and thereby shift the burden to future generations.
Why has Japan got trapped in such a political deadlock due to a lack of decision-making with foresight?
One of the main reasons is that politicians have been unable to confront the grim new realities of the nation. The era of continued and solid economic expansion and automatic growth in tax revenues is long gone.
But politicians, who need to be elected by voters to maintain their jobs, are generally reluctant to ask voters to accept an increase in their tax burden.
They make a broad array of election promises that are not backed by feasible financing plans and, therefore, are impossible to carry out.
Even if some politicians have the political mettle to talk about the harsh realities and call for reforms, there are usually many opponents to their proposals who spread illusions and fantasies, making progress toward necessary changes impossible.
The evils of the political stagnation have become painfully clear amid a bitterly divided Diet with the Upper House under opposition control.
Because of this situation, the three-party agreement on reform containing a tax increase painful for the voting public is all the more important.
The deal may be an unexpected outcome of the regime change. The DPJ defeated the LDP in the 2009 Lower House election and came to power by making many rosy election promises. But the party has failed to deliver on most of the pledges as it has been unable to find ways to raise the funds needed to realize its policy proposals.
During the past two years and nine months, the DPJ has learned some bitter lessons about the difficulty of running the government, as did the LDP before.
The tripartite agreement on tax and social security reform also shows there aren't wide differences between the DPJ, LDP and New Komeito over key policy issues.
Even if they try to differentiate their policy agendas from those of other parties, the current fiscal crunch leaves only a limited range of realistic options.
That's why the negotiations among the three parties on revisions to the reform bills drafted by the government focused not on the provisions of the bills, but on the DPJ's related election promises, like the creation of a new pension system.
There will undoubtedly be more such cases of the two main parties striking a policy deal through bipartisan talks for a political compromise.
But this approach has both pluses and minuses. Although it may lead to more policy decisions and actions, there is no guarantee that they will be good ones.
The LDP, for instance, has submitted to the Diet an infrastructure expansion bill that would spend 15 trillion yen in three years to build new roads and other public facilities.
The DPJ will face the challenge of how to deal with the LDP's new spending proposal, which would bring the nation back to the era of huge public works spending to stimulate economic growth.
Even so, it is time for Japanese political parties to outgrow their perennial partisan warfare.
In order to set Japanese politics moving in that direction, the DPJ's leadership needs to secure the party's endorsement of the blueprint for integrated reform in the face of opposition from a large group of party members.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 16
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