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Interview

Abe rival Ishiba says differences lie in 'political style'

Ruling party leadership candidate says Japan must prepare social security for 2040

Former Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba is challenging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party.

TOKYO -- This month's campaign for leadership of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party will be fought over the "political style" of economic policy and party management, candidate Shigeru Ishiba said in an interview on Tuesday.

"As LDP members, the things we aim for can't be that different," Ishiba, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's sole challenger and former defense minister and LDP secretary-general, told Nikkei. "But the way we achieve those goals differs for each one of us. Showing the public and party members that is the party's responsibility."

On his decision to run against Abe for party president -- and thus prime minister -- Ishiba said that "no administration goes on forever."

"It'll be difficult, but it would be odd not to run just because the opponent is the incumbent," he said. Campaigning begins on Friday, with the vote held Sept. 20.

Ishiba called for overhauling the social security system to adapt to a rapidly graying population while the economy still enjoys the benefits of Abenomics. "We have to show what pensions, medical care, nursing care and child-rearing will look like" with an eye toward 2040, when the aging process is expected to peak, he said.

He plans to establish a new national council on social security to work on the issue, with all its discussions open to the public. "Rather than protect various interests, it will properly put out even inconvenient data," he said.

Ishiba also touched on Abe twice postponing a consumption tax increase to 10%, rebuking the administration for using the delays to avoid talking about what to do next. The hike is now set for October 2019.

"We have to show to what extent reform of health care, pensions and nursing care will hold down" the rise in the consumption tax, he said, "though it's impossible to say for sure what the rate would be."

Abe's signature economic policy, Ishiba argued, has had the good fortune to benefit from strong economic conditions abroad. "I don't subscribe to the idea of boosting profits in big cities and at big companies so the effects trickle down to outlying areas and small and midsize businesses," he said.

Ishiba also said he would pursue a "candid" investigation into why inflation has failed to reach the Bank of Japan's 2% target.

Such risks as the Sino-American trade war and slowing Chinese economic growth "must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately," he said. To tackle such issues, Ishiba plans to establish an equivalent to the U.S. National Economic Council that he envisions staffing with economy-related cabinet members and representatives from financial institutions. He will consider tapping a top BOJ official or an experienced finance official to lead the council.

Like Abe, Ishiba seeks to amend Japan's pacifist constitution, and he urged the prime minister to explain why he changed his thinking on how to do so. Abe now supports retaining the current text of the war-renouncing Article 9 while adding language explicitly recognizing the Self-Defense Forces.

Abe has said he wants to see the revision submitted during the extraordinary parliamentary session this fall -- a goal Ishiba sees as a long shot when the legislature has not even revised the law on constitutional referendums to bring the rules in line with other votes. He said repeatedly that the party should prioritize electoral reform and amending the constitution to specify emergency powers for the central government.

Media polling shows Ishiba lagging well behind Abe among LDP supporters. "It would absolutely be bad for the LDP to lose touch with the will of the people," Ishiba said.

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