TOKYO -- Japanese voters with North Korea on the brain will find few differences between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, whose new party is mounting a challenge in the upcoming snap election. But the gap between the leaders becomes clearer when looking at nuclear policy and plans for a consumption tax increase.
Koike on Wednesday officially announced the establishment of her new national party, Kibo no To, or "Party of Hope." Like Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, the new group is conservative at its core; Koike herself was an LDP member until July. Besides sharing a basic political philosophy, both sides agree that North Korea is one of the most critical security issues facing Japan.
But Koike, who is not running in the election herself, will be looking to differentiate her party in other ways ahead of the election expected on Oct. 22.
"We are here with fellow lawmakers who believe that without a reset, Japan cannot sufficiently protect its international competitiveness and national security," Koike told a news conference on Wednesday morning. "We are a new conservative party with tolerance and the burning spirit of reform."
The biggest disagreement is over the consumption tax. Abe has pledged to follow through on a plan to raise the rate to 10%, from 8%, in 2019. Rather than paying down the national debt, much of the extra revenue would go toward funding new benefits, such as free education.
"We must transform our social security system into one that works for all generations," Abe told reporters on Monday.
But Koike said the tax hike should be put on hold "until Japan has an economic recovery that people can feel." Otherwise, "the economy will be hamstrung."
Masaru Wakasa, her close aid and a Party of Hope member, said Diet reforms should come before discussion of the tax hike -- including salary cuts for lawmakers. "Our stance is that the consumption tax hike in October 2019 will be difficult," he said during Wednesday's news conference.
The nuclear question
As for nuclear policy -- a hot-button issue since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns in 2011 -- the Abe government in 2014 adopted a Basic Energy Plan that calls for minimizing dependence on atomic power but maintaining some level of nuclear capacity.
Moreover, Abe's economic growth strategy includes exports of nuclear technology.
Although the Party of Hope's platform has yet to crystallize, Koike has voiced a clear "no to nuclear power plants."
After announcing plans to form the national party on Monday, Koike met with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and discussed ways to abandon nuclear power and promote renewable energy. It was Koizumi who gave Koike her cabinet debut as environment minister in 2003.
Still, rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula are likely to keep security and diplomacy in the spotlight. Abe earlier this week asserted that he and Koike share the same basic views on this front, noting that she served as defense minister during his first stint as prime minister in 2007.
The Party of Hope describes its own approach as a "realistic security policy built on pacifism."
Koike has even sounded cautiously open to Abe's goal of reforming Japan's pacifist constitution, saying the "discussion is inevitable," but that it is insufficient to "solely focus on Article 9" -- the passage that renounces war.
"Constitutional reform will be a theme for us," said Goshi Hosono, another key Party of Hope player who recently left the Democratic Party, the country's main opposition. "Still, the LDP is caught up with Article 9."
Further clarity on the differences -- and similarities -- between the parties should come when they release their official manifestoes closer to election day.