BY REIJI YOSHIDA AND SATOSHI SUGIYAMA
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met separately with top opposition leaders Wednesday, seeking nonpartisan cooperation to swiftly enact a special emergency law.
The law would allow the government to dramatically expand emergency legal powers, curbing the daily activities of citizens and businesses in hope of combating the COVID-19 crisis.
A majority of lawmakers have basically approved the idea of amending a 2013 law originally designed to cope with a global pandemic of a deadly influenza strain.
The ruling bloc is now trying to revise the law as soon as next week so that the legislation can be applied to the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The virus has already infected more than 1,000 patients nationwide, and has jeopardized the fate of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games set to start in late July.
Opposition lawmakers told reporters after their meetings with Abe that they will mostly cooperate with Diet deliberations but insisted the government should apply the law as it is right now.
The lawmakers have already raised concerns over excessive restrictions on citizens’ rights. The draft bill would allow the state of emergency to continue for up to two years — an aspect of the legislation likely to be debated at the Diet, according to media reports.
But Yukio Edano, who heads the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the largest opposition party was willing to cooperate with the ruling parties to enact the bill.
The CDP believes the situation is not serious enough yet for the prime minister to declare a state of emergency, he said, and that the government should consult with the Diet in advance if it will invoke such an emergency.
“We have cooperated (with the government) to deal with things that could affect the life and health of the nation, and will continue to do so,” Edano noted.
He also pointed out that the CDP has long argued the influenza law could be immediately applied to the novel coronavirus without any revisions.
Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the Democratic Party for the People, refrained from explicitly stating whether the party will support the amendment.
Meanwhile, Kazuo Shii, the chairman of the Japanese Communist Party, said the party won’t support the revision, pointing out that the existing law was already used as a legal basis in government measures like distributing masks. Shii added the party opposed the law when it was debated in 2012 over human rights concerns.
Under a state of emergency, prefectural governors would be authorized to “request” residents stay inside and to temporarily close or downscale schools, offices and other public facilities, according to the law.
If those institutions refused to obey the request, prefectural governments would be able to disclose their names, essentially naming and shaming them. The law would not provide any other penalty against such refusals.
Prefectural governments would also be able to expropriate lots of land to build temporary medical facilities in order to treat a surge of patients.
Under the provisions, the government would also be able to order medicine and food suppliers to sell their goods to authorities. If suppliers refused, the government would be able to forcibly procure such goods from them, according to the special flu law.
Based on the legislation, the government would give out medicine and vaccines and ask businesses to distribute necessary materials.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday the 2013 law as it is cannot be used to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak since it only applies to completely new infectious diseases.
Although the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, coronaviruses in general have been familiar to medics for years.
The government hopes to pass the revised law by next week. “We should pass the legislation as soon as possible,” said Hiroshi Moriyama, Diet affairs chief for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The prime minister’s decision to reach across the aisle suggests he intends to soften potential blows by driving the legislation forward in a more balanced way.
His leadership had been criticized as “too little, too late” through the first stage of the infection’s spread, and his announcement last week to shut down schools nationwide was slammed for being too abrupt. The request to school authorities has caused confusion among education officials and parents, and provoked anger from municipal leaders.
On Tuesday, opposition parties introduced a separate bill to expand virus testing. The bill stipulates that patients showing even mild symptoms should be eligible to take the test as long as their doctors deem it necessary.
The meetings among political leaders came as Japan entered new territory with regards to the viral outbreaks, with the number of confirmed infections in the nation — including more than 700 passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship — surpassing 1,000 the same day.
Yamaguchi Prefecture reported its first case of the novel coronavirus Wednesday. A man in his 40s became feverish on Feb. 23 and was hospitalized Monday. He had visited Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Oita prefectures before showing symptoms.
The city of Kyoto said a woman in her 50s was confirmed to be infected. She had been to a concert at a club in Osaka on Feb. 15 also attended by several other people who have since been diagnosed as infected with the new virus.