TOKYO -- As the campaign to choose the leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party officially began Monday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe focused on his economic track record and vowed to revise the country's postwar pacifist constitution.
His challenger, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, highlighted wage stagnation and stubborn poverty in Japan, calling for changes in the government's economic policies.
Abe is in a strong position politically, however, and is widely expected to win a third three-year term as LDP leader, allowing him to focus on his long-cherished goal of revising the U.S.-drafted constitution. Speaking to party members, Abe said, "The time has come to deal with constitutional reform."
The vote will be held Sept. 20 and decided by LDP parliamentarians, who have 405 votes, and rank-and-file LDP members, who have another 405 votes. The contest may be a replay of 2012, in which Ishiba led Abe among rank-and-file members, but lost out due to Abe's overwhelming support among members of the Diet, or parliament.
Abe appears to have secured the support of around 80% LDP parliamentary members. The main question is how well he will do among party members. Abe hopes to receive a strong mandate by dominating both the parliamentary and party member votes. In Japan, the head of the ruling party customarily serves as head of government.
The two candidates presented their policy ideas to party members and took part in a question-and-answer session with the media at the LDP's headquarters in Tokyo. The events had been scheduled for Friday but were postponed to allow the government to deal with the aftermath of a strong earthquake that hit the country's northernmost main island of Hokkaido on Thursday.
At the party meeting, Abe continued his push to write the Self-Defense Forces into the national constitution by referencing them in the war-renouncing Article 9, which bars Japan from maintaining "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential." He said he would submit LDP proposals for revising the constitution to the extraordinary Diet session expected in autumn.
"Understanding will grow quickly if we tie [constitutional reform] to a national referendum," said Abe, who expressed a desire to embark on this challenge in his next three-year term if elected.
Ishiba said that while settling the status of the SDF with Article 9 is important, he would start with the most "urgent" issues capable of winning public support. He called for eliminating upper house electoral districts that merge prefectures and adding language letting the government declare states of emergency during natural disasters. The former defense minister said he has never argued that the SDF is unconstitutional.
Abe also highlighted the achievements of his signature economic policy, known as Abenomics, during his six years as prime minister. Before Abe's LDP wrested power from the left-leaning Democratic Party in 2012, the yen's "excessive strength" had caused an exodus of Japanese companies overseas, Abe said. "The nation was overshadowed by a mood of resignation," he said.
Abe said he took on such pessimism, creating 2.5 million jobs, including 780,000 full-time jobs, in the last six years. The economy expanded by 12.2% over that time despite the country's working population declining by 4.5 million, and the ratio of full-time employment offers to job seekers surpassed 1 to mark a record high, he said.
Ishiba questioned how much ordinary people have benefited from Abenomics, saying, "The yen may have weakened due to massive monetary easing. Interest rates have gone down. Corporations have racked up record profits. But how about the income of average people?"
"Increasing corporate profits and increasing incomes are separate issues," Ishiba said.
"We must raise the pay of every citizen," he said.
He noted that labor's share of gross domestic product is at a 43-year low and that disposable income keeps falling. "There are 9.3 million people who live on an income of 1.86 million yen ($16,800) or less. Two-thirds of men are single. There are 6 million elderly living alone," he said. "They are waiting for help from the government."
Disaster response and preparedness was also a point of contention.
Thursday's magnitude 6.7 earthquake caused a blackout across the entire island of Hokkaido, which is heavily reliant on one power plant, shutting down phone networks, hotels, hospitals and factories. This happened just two days after a typhoon had struck the Osaka metropolitan area, closing a key international airport serving western Japan.
Ishiba underlined the need for a more varied and evenly distributed energy mix. He proposed building more wind power plants in Hokkaido and establishing a new ministry to oversee disaster response with a dedicated cabinet minister.
Abe criticized Ishiba's plan, saying that a ministry of equal rank with the SDF, the transportation ministry and the welfare ministry would be an ineffective coordinator. "Only a strong prime minister can mobilize them quickly," he said.
"I will order a comprehensive review of key infrastructure facilities across the country, including electricity networks and airports, to examine whether they are equipped to withstand large natural disasters," Abe said, promising investment in infrastructure in the next three years.
On the diplomatic front, Abe said that he would "take stock of Japan's entire foreign policy." He said the relationship between Japan and China has "entered a new phase," citing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's first visit to Japan in eight years this May and an agreement to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, while pushing for a peace treaty with Russia to officially end World War II.
Abe expressed a willingness to engage directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to solve issues surrounding the country's nuclear and missile programs, as well as the historical abduction of Japanese citizens by the regime.
Ishiba argued that Pyongyang's recent diplomatic offensive reflects closer ties with Beijing. He suggested that Japan set up a liaison office in the country to examine the effectiveness of Tokyo's policy measures regarding these issues.
Ishiba, meanwhile, said that while his foreign policy would still revolve around the Washington-Tokyo alliance, the U.S. must also realize that Japan is also a necessary partner. "Japan's national interests should be the main consideration for defense and status-of-forces agreements," he said.
On the domestic front, Ishiba questioned the Abe government's credibility following the scandals involving school operators Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution.
"The people will not respond to the government's drastic reforms without recovering trust in the prime minister's office," said Ishiba, who announced a 100-day plan to restore it.
"We must create a system to appoint officials in the cabinet who will truly work on behalf of the nation," he said.
"I am not a perfect human," Abe said. "I will reform certain areas and run my administration humbly while seriously accepting any criticism."