March 29, 2014 6:04 am JST

Abenomics zones could chip away at regulatory bedrock

TOKYO -- New special zones, one of the most talked-up features of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic growth strategy, offer hope for deregulation but will need to prove themselves where resistance is stiff.

     The initial group of six zones is meant to "stir up innovation in the economy by advancing regulatory reform," Internal Affairs Minister Yoshitaka Shindo said Friday.

     Regulations that have long resisted attempts at change will be overhauled, according to members of an advisory panel that took part in the drafting.

     Indeed, the plan dares to target previously sacrosanct areas of the regulatory bedrock. One of the zones -- encompassing Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures -- is dedicated to medical innovation, including treatments not covered by national health insurance. The Japan Medical Association opposes access to such care.

     The zone is supposed be a hub for such high-tech cures as stem-cell-based regenerative medicine. The idea is to make drugs already in use overseas but still unapproved in Japan available to patients quickly.

     The city of Narita, part of the international-business-focused Tokyo zone, will serve as a test case for waiving a ban on foreign doctors practicing medicine in Japan.

     Agriculture is another area where rules will be bent. In certain zones, local governments will be able to put farmland up for sale. Agricultural cooperatives, which oppose corporate involvement in farming, have until now had a say in changes of ownership. Letting localities take charge is supposed to help consolidate farmland and put fields that have fallen into disuse back under the plow.

     When it comes to employment, foreign companies and venture-stage domestic businesses have complained that they never quite know whether firing an employee will put them in legal hot water. To prevent such trouble, Fukuoka, Tokyo and other designated areas will set up employment advisory centers where employers can find answers to such questions.