Premier asks opposition for support
Japan's prime minister has pledged to push for tax and social security reform, as he called on opposition politicians to help him rein in the country's bloated deficit for the sake of future generations.
Premier Yoshihiko Noda also promised to reduce the country's reliance on nuclear power over time and reiterated plans to devise a new energy policy by the summer.
He committed to step up efforts to decontaminate the area around the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Mr Noda's speech, outlining his policy priorities, kicks off what is expected to be a contentious parliamentary session dominated by debate over his goal to raise the sales tax to help ease revenue shortfalls caused by the country's ageing population and shrinking work force.
Declaring that he wants to make this year "the first year of Japan's rebirth", Mr Noda urged politicians to work together to achieve "decisive politics" amid widespread public weariness with political gridlock and squabbling.
"As things stand right now, the burden will be too heavy for the future generation," Mr Noda said. "There's no time to put this off any longer."
Japan's national debt has grown to twice its GDP, and Mr Noda said that stopgap measures repeatedly taken by his predecessors are no longer an effective solution.
He has promised to submit a bill by end of March to raise the 5% sales tax in two stages to 8% in 2014 and 10% by 2015.
Mr Noda's proposal faces opposition from within his own party, as well as from opposition politicians who control the less powerful upper house, but he warned that if Japan does not take urgent steps, it could face a debt crisis similar to the one gripping Europe.
Mr Noda said tax breaks and other measures would cushion the impact of a sales tax hike on low-income citizens. The maximum tax rate for high income earners would be also raised. He promised to first look for other sources of revenue, including the sale of government-owned assets, such as apartments for bureaucrats and their families, and liquidation of state-funded organisations.