“GOLDEN WEEK” HOLIDAYS: CHANCE TO REFLECT ON JAPAN’S FUTURE
The state of national emergency declared by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 7 was expected to start showing results within two weeks—around April 21.
The daily number of confirmed Wuhan virus infections in Tokyo—123 on April 21—has since remained above 100 as of this writing (April 26), when it dropped to 72. Since a smaller number of blood tests are conducted on weekends, it would be premature to take this number at its face value. But it still puts one at ease somewhat.
Can Japan successfully fight off the Wuhan virus with government restrictions limited to a “request” to stay home during the emergency? Can we Japanese really restrain ourselves sufficiently to bring about the needed results? We are being put to the test now.
Television stations aired footage of a deserted compound of the ordinarily bustling Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, popular all year round among worshippers and tourists. The plush thoroughfares of Tokyo’s famed Ginza and Akasaka shopping/entertainment districts are equally empty. Heeding the government’s appeal to “stay home,” many proprietors of stores and restaurants have temporarily closed their businesses, while people do their best to cope with the crisis by daily putting up with a host of inconveniences. The “Golden Week” string of national holidays (April 25-May 6) has begun. Let us do everything in our power to together block new infections and, most importantly, prevent serious cases or deaths from the deadly epidemic.
Some people are not cooperating, however. A few pachinko pinball parlor owners in Osaka have refused to close their businesses, despite these type of crowded and enclosed places having been identified by the government as among the most dangerous sources of infection. Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura made public the names of these parlors after his request for a temporary closure was rejected. But Yoshimura’s action reportedly drove more pachinko enthusiasts flooding into the parlors.
Foreign media have criticized Japanese virus-fighting measures as too weak. At home, too, Abe’s measures have been criticized as “too little and too late.” I totally agree.
While Abe is accountable for his failure to take sufficient action speedily, however, one realizes on closer reflection that the real problem lies with the fundamental structure of our government: our postwar constitution fails to grant a prime minister sufficient power to take aggressive action to lead the nation from the front in the event of an emergency.
The revised “special measures law”—based on the New Influenza Special Measures Act enacted under the Democratic administration in 2012—constitutes the basis of the actions the government can take against the Wuhan virus. But this law fails to equip the government with the mandatory power to cope effectively with a national crisis. In point of fact, Article 5 of the law stipulates: “In implementing countermeasures, restrictions on the freedom and private rights of the people shall be kept at the minimum necessary.”
Appearing as a guest on my weekly “Genron” Internet television news show on April 24, Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister charged with coronavirus countermeasures, defended the government by emphasizing that it is committed to keeping restrictions on private rights at the minimum necessary during the virus epidemic. In other words, by adhering to the law the government can only implement “minimum necessary” measures.
Government Measures Too Little and Too Late
Another point about the special measures law is that it is based on the principle of honoring the sovereignty of local governments, calling for power to be distributed between the central and local governments, with greater emphasis placed on the role played by the latter. While it is the prime minister’s prerogative to declare a state of emergency, governors are called on to exercise authority to devise specific countermeasures. The most the central government can do is map out “basic measures” and “coordinate” between local governments.
Fundamentally, the law is a revision of the afore-mentioned 2012 new influenza law crafted to apply to the new coronavirus. Because the revised law reflects what the Democratic administration (2009-2012) advocated, Renho Murata and Tetsuro Fukuyama, deputy head of the Democratic Party and its secretary general, respectively, are spitting into the wind every time they criticize the government’ s virus countermeasures as too little and too late.
What actually is happening in the local municipalities entrusted with power and responsibility under the law? What they require is financial resources for more extensive PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests, facilities to isolate patients, and subsidies for individuals and businesses unable to work or operate. Except for cash-rich Tokyo, local governments find power and responsibility difficult to exercise properly on their own, as they are heavily dependent on the government’s tax allocations.
The central government has delegated authority to local governments, which are making sincere efforts to perform the assigned tasks to the best of their ability. But there is no denying that coping with the crisis alone is a tall order for most of them.
Putting it bluntly, there is no central agent to take ultimate responsibility for the required virus countermeasures. Japan will not be able to take truly effective action to fight off the virus without the presence of a central government capable of taking command, recognizing the dire need for all prefectures to unite efforts.
The government must be equipped with the authority to impose a curfew as necessary, working in close cooperation with the local governments, with Tokyo and Osaka at the head of the list. In times of crisis, the central government must take the lead expeditiously. However, the thinking behind our existing laws is the very factor that plunges Japan into serious national dysfunction in times of crisis, as it denies the central government sufficient authority. Our laws, designed to promote so-called regional rights, are merely an extension of the basic legal structure designed to honor regional sovereignty, restricting the government all the more rigidly in the face of an emergency.
Be that as it may, the piecemeal countermeasures worked out by the government this time have been too little, too late, starting with the emergency economic measures. There are two possible reasons: 1) a lack of cooperation from the opposition in the Diet, and 2) Article 29 of the Public Finance Act enacted in the wake of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
Article 29 stipulates that a full-fledged formulation of a supplementary budget not be implemented before the year’s budget is formally approved. This makes it difficult for the government to timely craft auxiliary monetary measures to cope with a given situation.
The budget is drafted with the ruling parties taking the leadership, subsequently endorsed by the cabinet prior to deliberations in the Diet. Each year, Finance Ministry bureaucrats spend roughly a month, spending many sleepless nights, working on voluminous budget documents that can run up to several hundred pages. The prime minister and the finance minister explain their content at budgetary committee sessions in both chambers of the Diet.
Opposition Forces Also Responsible for Delayed Action
The 2020 budget was enacted on March 27. If the opposition forces had cooperated more earnestly, it would have been approved about a month earlier. Because the budget bill had passed the lower house on February 28, it was obvious that the budget would be enacted regardless of the results of deliberations in the upper house. (Under Paragraph 2 of Article 60 of the constitution, the decision of the lower house “shall be the decision of the Diet.”) In normal times, heated deliberations at the upper house would have been necessary, but it was an extraordinary time, with the World Health Organization (WHO) having declared a global health emergency in late January.
As if unconcerned about the fast-spreading pandemic, members of the Democratic Party, from Renho down, devoted most of their deliberation time to grilling the government on matters of a non-urgent nature, such as the “cherry blossom viewing party” Abe had hosed in April last year. In their zeal to give priority to attacking the administration as usual, did they by any chance fail to recognize the urgency needed in distributing emergency handouts? If the budget bill had passed the upper house soon after approval by the lower house, a supplementary budget bill could have been enacted by the end of the March. The government could then have apportioned the handouts—\100,000 per head or \300,000 per family—in early April.
So the opposition is also accountable for the “slow action” on the part of the Abe administration.
Many governments in other parts of the world have taken much quicker action, if often somewhat rough and ready. The British Parliament swiftly switched the debate between party leaders to remote control via teleconference. The European Parliament is settling important issues via on-line voting.
In Japan, Internet voting was proposed in 2018 as part of a plan to reform the Diet, but was rejected under the terms of Article 56 of the constitution: “Business cannot be transacted in either House unless one-third or more of total membership is present.”
To expedite parliamentary deliberations, the German Bundestag has reduced to a quarter the quorum of the lower house which had required a majority of total membership. Article 56 of our constitution, meanwhile, makes it difficult for Japan to adopt on-line voting.
Our government will not be able to function effectively in times of crisis unless we first revise the current constitution, which was drafted with the central idea that the state is evil and therefore its power should be limited. Also mandatory is a thorough scrutiny of a host of other laws, including the Public Financial Act, that are based on the conviction that the Diet is not equipped to properly monitor the government unless lawmakers, who represent the people, deliberate every single issue in extreme detail.
Even if we should succeed in winning the battle against the Wuhan virus with the self-regulation and cooperation of the people, we should stand ready for a more challenging era of international relations going forward. In order to survive what lies ahead, we must smartly review our postwar regime, including the constitution. It would do well for all of us to spend this year’s “Golden Week” holidays thinking long and hard about the future of this country. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 899 in the May 7-14 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho)