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The second opening of Japan

US President Barack Obama is visiting Tokyo at a unique moment in my country's history, with Japan's economy moving onto a stable new growth path that will take full advantage of its geographic position. Japan no longer considers itself the "Far" East; rather, we are at the very center of the Pacific Rim, and a neighbor to the world's growth center stretching from Southeast Asia to India.

There can be little doubt that this growth center will continue to propel Japan's economy for the foreseeable future. Japanese direct investment is expanding in Vietnam and India, for example, which will boost demand for Japanese machine tools and capital goods.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Barack Obama attend the opening session of the at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 24, 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands.
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Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Barack Obama attend the opening session of the at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 24, 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands.

But, to maximize its opportunities, Japan must open its economy further and become a country that actively incorporates capital, human resources, and wisdom from abroad. Japan must be a country capable of growing by channeling the vitality of a growing Asia.

To this end, we have sharply accelerated the pace of negotiations on economic partnership agreements, or EPAs, with various partners around the world. Earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and I reached agreement in principle on a Japan-Australia EPA. Next in line is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would unite 12 countries in the world's largest trading area.

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Both Japan and the United States attach great importance to rules, uphold the principles of freedom and democracy, and possess the most advanced technologies and industries. We intend to overcome our differences and together forge, in the form of the TPP, a twenty-first-century economic order for Asia and the Pacific that will serve as an unshakable foundation for growth.

My government is also pushing hard to realize an EPA with the European Union. Given that the US and the EU already are engaged in trade talks, an EPA between Japan and the EU, coupled with the TPP, will give rise to a truly immense market — a single enormous growth engine that will benefit the entire global economy.

But Japan's economic frontiers extend well beyond Asia and the Pacific, to Latin America and Africa — more reason to abandon our long-held inward-looking perspective. A large number of highly motivated and ambitious young people have already come to Japan from around the world, especially from neighboring Asian countries, to study or work. Japan must remain their hope. We must not be disrespectful of them, and our arms must always be wide open towards them. Japan, I believe, is that kind of country.

In the near future, we will designate six National Strategic Economic Growth Areas — Tokyo, Kansai, Okinawa Prefecture, and the cities of Niigata, Yabu, and Fukuoka — to serve as models for the rest of the country. In health care, education, agriculture, and employment practices, we are identifying policies and practices that have fallen out of step with today's needs, and we will move quickly to reform them. The National Strategic Economic Growth Areas will insert the probe of reform down into our regulatory system, which has hardened into bedrock.

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Another habit that Japanese must change is our pervasive male-oriented thinking. We have already resolved to ensure that at least 30% of all personnel hired by the national government are women. I am also now urging publicly traded companies to add at least one woman as a board member. Once we reach the point at which it is no longer news to have a woman or a non-Japanese serving as a CEO, Japan will have reinvented itself and recovered its true spirit of risk-taking and innovation.

"Womenomics" tells us that a society in which women are dynamically engaged will also have a higher birth rate. My government intends to address, urgently, the need to expand day-care facilities and other such infrastructure as the foundation for a society that benefits from all of its members' skills and talents.

We are fully capable of change; indeed, we relish it, as the world will see in the months and years to come. But some things about Japan are unchanging, and some must not be changed.

One of these is our track record, which supports our ambition to be a "proactive contributor to peace." Japan has made more than its fair share of financial contributions to the United Nations and its organizations, both historically and today. And our embrace of our global responsibilities extends to Japan's Self-Defense Forces. Members of the Self-Defense Forces displayed exemplary cooperation with the US and Australian armed forces in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, and they have earned deep appreciation and respect everywhere they have been deployed, including Haiti, Indonesia, and most recently, the Philippines.

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To make a proactive contribution to peace means that Japan will bear its own share of responsibility for assuring the security that supports global prosperity and stability. Working alongside countries with which we share common values and interests, we will safeguard and cultivate international public goods, ranging from space and cyberspace to the skies and the seas.

As the world will see during Obama's visit, Japan is back and thriving. And its return is indispensable for global stability and prosperity.

Commentary by Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014

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