Junichiro Koizumi vows to continue reforms, improve ties with China and Korea in policy speech

Japan will push ahead with wide-ranging reforms and strengthen its relations with China and South Korea, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Friday, in what may be his last annual policy speech to parliament.

Koizumi, who reiterated he would step down when his term ends in September, also called for more debate on changing Japan's constitution, and said the government will submit a bill allowing a woman to ascend Japan's imperial throne.

"We cannot afford to slacken our reform efforts," Koizumi said on parliament's first day in session, referring to a drive that has centered on a plan to privatize the nation's sprawling postal system, reduce the number of public servants and trim the national budget.

The premier's calls for reform helped his Liberal Democratic Party return to power with a huge majority in parliament's powerful lower house in nationwide elections last year.

Koizumi also played down a recent fissure in Tokyo's relations with Beijing and Seoul over a spate of territorial and historical disputes, saying he would work to improve ties.

The premier also said the government plans to submit a bill to reform the laws on the imperial family, under which only males who have emperors on their father's side can currently succeed to the throne _ to avert a looming succession crisis.

Koizumi said, referring to a decision reached by an independent panel last November that recommended allowing the first-born child of either sex to ascend the throne.

The last woman to take the crown was Gosakuramachi, who reigned 1762-1770. Only seven other women ruled before her.

In his concluding remarks, the premier called for further debate on reforming Japan's pacifist constitution. Japan's constitution _ drafted by U.S. occupation forces after World War II and unchanged since 1947 _ bars the country from employing military force in international disputes and prohibits it from having a military for warfare. But Japan has interpreted this to mean it can maintain a 240,000-strong military it calls the Self-Defense Force to protect itself.

The LDP has already proposed constitutional amendments that would officially recognize the SDF and give it greater freedom to operate overseas, but has given no set timetable for bringing those amendments to parliament, reports the AP.

Amendments to the constitution must be endorsed by a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament, as well as by a majority of the population in a national referendum. The current session of parliament is slated to run for 150 days.

A.M.