Reviving Japan’s economy fraught with power pitfalls

If past is precedent, optimists hoping Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will defy vested interests to take bold action to open the country to more competition as a way to spur growth could well be in for disappointment.

Japan’s list of reports urging reforms date back almost three decades and have rarely led to the bold action that critics say is needed to dig the economy out of stagnation.

Abe, who got a rare second chance at Japan’s top job after his Liberal Democratic Party’s election win in December, has made structural reforms, such as deregulation, the third arrow of his Abenomics plan to revive the economy.

But skepticism runs deep that he can be as successful with economic reform, which experts say will be the acid test after  his first two arrows of fiscal spending and hyper-easy monetary policy, a combination that spurred a stock market rally and bolstered Abe’s popularity ratings.

“People somehow think that Japan can get by, so it’s not really necessary to take painful steps,” said Junji Annen, a professor at Chuo University who has sat on several past deregulation committees and is now a member of Abe’s new panel.

“We’ve been saying for a quarter century that action must be taken. I don’t think this time will be all that different,” he said, adding the government would face opposition to reforms and might well end up taking incremental rather than drastic steps.

“I worry that if the economy gets a bit better, they will ease up on reform,” Annen said.

Proposals by a panel on industrial competitiveness and another on regulatory reform will be key to a growth strategy that Abe will unveil in June, ahead of a July upper house election that his ruling bloc needs to win to cement its grip on power.

Abe’s advisers, however, are split over how extensive a role government should play in economic affairs. Some are keen to see public funds invested in key sectors, while others want to loosen the government’s tight grip that critics say stifles innovation and new businesses.

Among the topics under discussion are loosening employment rules to make it easier to shed workers, deregulating medical and child care sectors, promoting use of the Internet, reforming corporate governance and overhauling electric power utilities.

The list of reports urging reforms date back at least as far as the landmark Maekawa Report in 1986, when former central bank chief Haruo Maekawa and other advisers urged policymakers shift from export-led growth, to open markets and to make regulations the exception rather than the rule.

Within months of the report’s issuance, foreign diplomats were complaining that Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone had reneged on promises of change.

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