Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday vowed to reduce wealth disparity in Japan as he unveiled his economic policies for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's leadership race, which is shaping up to be a three-way contest as former communications minister Sanae Takaichi formally announced her bid.
Vaccine czar Taro Kono, who consistently ranks high in opinion polls asking who is most fit to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, is expected to announce his candidacy in the coming days.
At a press conference in Tokyo, Kishida vowed to boost people's incomes and "make a break from the neoliberal policies" of the last several decades.
While recognizing that deregulation and structural reforms pursued by Suga and his predecessor Shinzo Abe "undoubtedly yielded results," Kishida warned that "the economic gap will widen further if we do the same things we have been doing."
"Unless we properly distribute the fruits of growth, we cannot prevent disparities from widening," Kishida said, pledging to expand the middle class by providing support to people raising children.
In late August, the 64-year-old elected from a Hiroshima prefectural constituency declared his bid in the Sept. 29 LDP leadership race, which will effectively decide the next prime minister as the party controls the powerful lower house of parliament.
Suga abruptly announced his resignation last week after just a year in office amid criticism over the government's COVID-19 response, setting up the LDP to choose a new leader heading into a general election this fall.
Kishida also pledged to revive regional economies while correcting excessive concentration of the population and industries in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Takaichi is attempting to become Japan's first female prime minister, only the second woman to run in the LDP's leadership race after Yuriko Koike, currently the governor of Tokyo, in 2008.
At a separate press conference in the capital, Takaichi vowed to pursue the three arrows of monetary easing, agile fiscal spending during emergencies and boosting investment in crisis management including defense capabilities in a policy package she dubbed "Sanaenomics."
The label was a clear nod to the "Abenomics" of Abe, a close ally who is believed to have helped her secure the endorsement from 20 lawmakers needed to run.
Takaichi also said she will suspend the government's goal of bringing its primary balance into the black by fiscal 2025 until the Bank of Japan achieves its 2 percent inflation target and consider legislation allowing Japan to impose lockdowns to fight COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
A native of Nara Prefecture in western Japan, the 60-year-old served as minister of internal affairs and communications as well as LDP policy chief under Abe.
Part of the LDP's conservative wing, Takaichi opposes giving married couples the option to have different surnames or allowing imperials in the maternal line to ascend the Chrysanthemum throne.
Takaichi becoming prime minister will likely strain relations with neighboring China and South Korea, as she has said she will continue to visit Yasukuni shrine, seen by some as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
"It's unfortunate that I'm criticized for wanting to pay my respects to those who gave their lives for this country, but it's my freedom of religion," she said.
Kono, the minister in charge of vaccination efforts, has long argued for phasing out nuclear energy but appeared to shift his stance on Wednesday, telling reporters he sees restarting reactors halted in the wake of the Fukushima crisis as necessary to reduce greenhouse gases.
Kishida ruled out building new reactors but also said he would aim to get existing ones back online, saying they are necessary to achieve the country's goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Meanwhile, four opposition parties including the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan agreed on a set of joint pledges on Wednesday, including lowering the consumption tax rate and achieving a zero-carbon society without nuclear energy.
The CDPJ, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and Reiwa Shinsengumi also vowed to raise the minimum wage, oppose amending the Constitution and giving couples the option of keeping separate surnames after marriage.