After a whirlwind week of coronavirus developments and setbacks that have placed much of the world on edge, the Upper House on Friday approved legislation authorizing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency.
The approval marks a rare occasion of unity — at least on the surface — in Japanese politics, which has been dominated in recent years by fierce clashes between Abe’s ruling coalition and opposition parties.
The law passed with support from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito as well as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People, the two largest opposition parties.
Still, both sides are seeking to score political points. Castigated by critics over his initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Abe is in damage control mode and is desperately trying to cast himself as a strong leader capable of steering the country in a time of crisis.
The opposition parties, united in their determination to take down Abe but also at odds with each other on certain issues, used the prime minister’s plea for cooperation as an opportunity to project an image to the public that they are a check and balance against overreach by the administration.
“The opposition parties don’t want to get in the way (of the amendment) and be seen as undermining the Japanese people’s health in a time of national emergency,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a political science professor at Waseda University and a former Lower House lawmaker with the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan.The state-of-emergency legislation is an amendment to a law covering influenza and new infectious diseases passed in 2012, when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power.
Abe wanted to expand the law to include COVID-19 so that the government could declare a state of emergency to mitigate repercussions from a surge in infections. His administration argued the amendment was necessary because coronaviruses have been familiar to health authorities for years but were not included in the original law.
Under a state of emergency, prefectural governors would have the authority to request that residents stay inside. They would also be able to call for the temporary closures or downscaling of schools, offices and other public facilities. If such facilities refuse to comply with a request, prefectural governments would be able to disclose their names as a way to ensure measures are enforced.
Prefectural governments would also be able to expropriate land in order to build temporary medical facilities to treat a surge in patients.
Under the provisions, the prefectural government would be able to order medicine and food suppliers to sell their goods to authorities and forcibly procure items from any companies that refuse.
The legislation places a two-year limit on the measures.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Thursday that the government is not considering immediately declaring a state of emergency “at this point.”
The prime minister’s move is another in a pattern of audacious decisions that have at times jolted the nation. Seeing the public grow increasingly frustrated with the slow speed at which his government initially responded to the crisis, Abe began making surprise announcements one after another, including calling for large events to be canceled, postponed or downscaled, and for schools to be closed. Although they were just requests without legal teeth, event organizers and school officials have largely adhered to them.
In NHK’s latest poll, 47 percent of respondents said they are dissatisfied with the government’s coronavirus response, up from 31 percent in February. His disapproval rating edged up by four points to 41 percent in March compared to February. When it comes to school closures, though, 69 percent said the decision was unavoidable.
Realizing that Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan as a state guest would not win the public’s approval — especially due to Xi’s initial effort to downplay the disease — while acknowledging the fact that the outbreak was not winding down, Tokyo and Beijing reluctantly postponed it.
This, in a way, allowed Abe to adopt tougher measures on China, such as quarantining visitors from the country for 14 days and revoking recently issued visas. Nations like the United States and Australia had already banned the entry of foreign nationals who had recently visited China by early February.
The state visit was something Abe had sought to bolster his political legacy, allowing him to claim he facilitated stronger Japan-China relations and economic ties during his time in office.
But as the virus fears grew, destabilizing stock markets and triggering massive uncertainty, Abe shifted gears and reached across the aisle in search of opposition support.
Even though the opposition insisted the law covering influenza passed in 2012 was adequate to deal with the rapidly spreading disease, it decided a swift collaboration was a wiser move than playing hardball.
“It’s unmistakable that we need to take actions first, even though the government says the law cannot be applied to the coronavirus as it is while we say it can,” said CDP Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama on Tuesday. “Not making progress in the talks wouldn’t help to reduce the number of infected, so we are going to cooperate this time around.”
The amendment is purely political, said Nakabayashi, the political science professor. Abe needed to propose the legislative action in a bid to “make up for the negative image (that had formed) that the government’s measures were too late,” she said.
The opposition hesitated to immediately side with the prime minister, however, and proposed an amendment mandating parliamentary approval before any declaration of a state of emergency.
Although the ruling bloc shot down the amendment, the opposition voted in favor of the legislation in the end after a supplementary resolution was added that stipulated the government would notify the Diet before any state of emergency could be declared.
Earlier, there was speculation that passage of the legislation would be delayed as the opposition was angered over Justice Minister Masako Mori’s unsubstantiated claim this week that prosecutors in Fukushima fled and let go of around 10 suspects immediately after the March 2011 earthquake. Her comment, which she later apologized for, was taken as an attack on the independence of the public prosecutor’s office.
While the opposition boycotted Thursday morning’s Diet session, it agreed to resume deliberations after Abe reprimanded Mori over her remarks.
The opposition, however, wasn’t completely unified in voting for the amendment. The Japanese Communist Party voted against it and the CDP was internally split on unilaterally supporting the government proposal, particularly the section that would enable the government to take action to restrict daily activities, which some believe could embolden the prime minister.
The dispute spilled into the public eye when Shiori Yamao, a CDP Lower House member, broke ranks with the party’s leader, Yukio Edano, criticizing the amendment’s time limit for a declaration of emergency as being too long and the fact that any declaration would not require Diet approval. She voted against the legislation.
“The opposition is divided between lawmakers who insist on attacking the Abe administration and lawmakers who insist that even opposition parties need to think about people’s safety and health in a state of emergency,” Nakabayashi said.