Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and opposition parties have stepped up calls for amending the Constitution to make Japan better prepared for emergencies such as the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The calls are aimed at highlighting their commitment to crisis management and constitutional amendments in the run-up to the next election for the House of Representatives, which needs to be held by autumn.
Within the government and the LDP, there seems to be frustration over the limited effects of the measures that have been taken so far to tackle the virus.
By contrast, the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and others are critical of what they see as attempts to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse for revising the Constitution.
At a meeting of people in support of constitutional amendments in Tokyo on May 3, Hakubun Shimomura, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, stressed the need for a constitutional clause on dealing with an emergency situation. "We need to set up a hospital dedicated to COVID-19 patients if the medical system is under strain, but it is impossible under the current program," he said.
At the same meeting, Yasushi Adachi of the opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai party called attention to the state of emergency declared by some prefectural governors despite the lack of a legal basis. If the situation is left unattended, "restrictions on rights and freedom would become constant little by little," he said.
Shiori Yamao of the Democratic Party for the People, another opposition party, said at a meeting of the Lower House Commission on the Constitution on Thursday that rules need to be laid down beforehand.
A bill to amend the national referendum law, a precondition for discussions on constitutional amendments, is expected to clear the Lower House on Tuesday for enactment during the ongoing ordinary session of the Diet through June.
Proponents of the bill apparently hope to trigger full-scale debates on constitutional reform by focusing on an emergency situation at a time when members of the public are still unenthusiastic about revising the Constitution.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference Friday that public interest in an emergency situation has heightened and referred to restrictions on private rights.
In Europe and the United States, highly restrictive measures such as lockdowns have been implemented to contain the pandemic. On the other hand, authorities' recommendations for people to avoid going out for nonessential purposes during the nation's state of emergency are simply requests and lack binding force, a senior LDP official said.
Some opposition forces remain opposed to constitutional reform.
"Inability to take the necessary countermeasures is (due to) the government's political decision," Yukio Edano, leader of the CDP, said at a meeting of the pro-Constitution camp on Monday. "We can't allow the Constitution to be blamed."
Kazuo Shii, chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, said the medical system being on the brink of collapsing is a man-made disaster caused by the Suga government. "Taking advantage of the mess to amend the Constitution is like looting at a fire," he said.
There are also cautious opinions within the ruling coalition.
"The problem is that the government has failed to take effective measures. If the subject is changed to the Constitution, the nation would be headed in a dangerous direction," a middle-ranking official of the LDP said.
A senior official of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the LDP, said, "A (constitutional) clause on dealing with an emergency situation and response to the coronavirus crisis are separate issues," adding that there is no need for haste.
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