Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has called again for Japan to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade liberalisation talks, pledging to protect the country's farmers if necessary.
He made the appeal during a political debate shown live only on Internet television last night.
"We will protect whatever ought to be protected," he said during the debate, held in the run-up to the December 16 snap general election.
The political debate, the first to be conducted in Japan over the Internet, saw Noda trading barbs with nine other party leaders on their respective policies.
Shinzo Abe, head of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), accused the Noda administration of not being capable of protecting Japan's interests in the multilateral TPP negotiations.
"If it means having to abolish all tariffs, we oppose the TPP talks," said Abe.
Nuclear energy policy also dominated the proceedings.
The LDP favours restarting nuclear power stations stopped for maintenance.
But most other parties, including Noda's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), vow to abandon nuclear energy sooner or later, as Japanese voters are now against nuclear power, following last year's nuclear plant disaster at Fukushima, about 200km north of Tokyo.
Conspicuously absent from last night's event was the Japan Restoration Party - headed jointly by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara and Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto - which sees itself as a viable third political force.
The debate, organised by the popular video- sharing website Niconico, took place in the wake of frenzied negotiations among the nation's smaller political parties in an attempt to forge electoral tie-ups before the start of official campaigning next Tuesday.
PM Noda agreed to take part at the last minute after his proposal for a nationally televised, one-on-one debate with the LDP's Abe was rejected by the opposition leader.
Observers said Abe appeared unwilling to take on Noda, after having been overwhelmed by the tough-talking premier in a one-on-one debate in the Lower House two weeks ago.
Noda said he had wanted to have another debate with Abe as he believed the upcoming election offers Japanese voters the chance to decide, albeit indirectly, which of them was the better man for prime minister.
Going by recent opinion polls, the LDP is tipped to beat the DPJ in the election.
If that happens, Abe, a former premier, could get the job again as the party that wins a majority in the Lower House gets to choose who becomes premier.
But if no party clinches more than half the seats, the parties that agree to form a governing coalition have to decide among themselves who should occupy the prime minister's seat.
A minor controversy erupted a few days ago over the choice of Niconico as a platform for the political debate after a senior official of Noda's DPJ alleged that the website allowed postings by viewers that were usually very one-sided.
The official's remark was an apparent allusion to rumours that Niconico is a favourite hangout for young male netizens with a strong right-wing or anti-establishment bent.
According to Niconico, last night's debate attracted more than 1.2 million viewers at its peak.
Kwan Weng Kin
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