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Editorial: Deepen constitutional debate over measures for emergencies

The government has a responsibility to establish rules in the event of an emergency. The ruling and opposition parties should deepen discussion on how to shape the Constitution in this regard.

 

The 73rd Constitution Day has arrived. The principles upheld in the Constitution — sovereign power residing with the people, pacifism and the protection of fundamental human rights — have become ingrained ideas among the people and have greatly contributed to Japan’s development.

 

However, the Constitution, which has not been revised even once, has become unsuited to respond to the rapid changes experienced in Japan and the international community. The Constitution must be continually reviewed, to ensure that it functions appropriately as the top law of the nation.

 

Japan is now embroiled in the crisis of an infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus. People and goods come and go across borders in the globalized economy. In this kind of modern society, infectious diseases can rapidly spread around the world, causing many deaths and paralyzing society and the economy.

 

Was the government fully prepared for coping with an unexpected crisis? Can we say that laws including the Constitution and other systems of Japan have functioned effectively? The ongoing crisis must be used as an opportunity to stop and think about these issues.

 

The postwar Constitution has no provisions for a state of emergency. When the Constitution was being devised, the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers did not accept a proposal from the government seeking to include the right of emergency powers in the top law.

 

As a result, specific laws have been passed instead to deal with given situations such as a disaster or an armed attack. The fact that the Constitution has been left without a provision for crisis management must be described as a political error of omission.

 

The Liberal Democratic Party advocates creating a provision for emergencies, in its four-point constitutional amendment proposal compiled in 2018. The proposal outlines ideas for issuing cabinet orders that have the same power as a law if the Diet cannot be convened in the event of an extraordinary, large-scale disaster.

 

Prompt, adequate responses are required during a state of emergency. As a nation governed by laws, it is quite reasonable to stipulate in a law the details, procedures and restrictions related to the government’s authority to prepare for such a situation, in addition to describing basic principles in the Constitution.

 

It is also important to establish a legal framework in order to prevent human rights violations or excessive restrictions on private rights as a result of extrajudicial measures.

 

The LDP’s proposal was designed to deal with natural disasters, without assuming cases of foreign armed attacks, terrorism or infectious disease.

 

It would be worth considering designating a pandemic of infectious disease, along with major earthquakes and other unusual circumstances, as a situation appropriate for exercising a provision for emergencies.

 

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll, about 40% of respondents said they were particularly interested in emergency situations as a theme related to the Constitution, an increase from the previous year. The spread of new coronavirus infections is believed to have affected the result. The ruling and opposition parties must seriously discuss the matter.

 

Each country has deemed the spread of the virus to be a national crisis and is invoking state powers. Spain and Italy have declared a constitutional state of emergency to restrict public outings and economic activities.

 

Countries are expanding the scope of emergency situations to include terrorism and natural disasters to respond to the changing times. These examples could also serve as useful references for Japan.

 

Another point of contention is how to maintain the functions of the Diet in an emergency.

 

The Constitution stipulates that both houses of the Diet must be attended by at least one-third of all lawmakers in order to hold Diet proceedings. In an emergency, it is possible a quorum may not be met.

 

If the legislature fails to function, budgets and bills cannot be enacted, making the Diet unable to properly deal with relevant matters.

 

The LDP has proposed extending as a special measure House of Representatives members’ four-year terms and House of Councillors members’ six-year terms currently stipulated in the Constitution, if a national election cannot be held due to a major disaster.

 

The current term of office of lower house members is set to end in October next year. If national elections cannot be held over a wide area following an emergency, a large number of seats could be vacant. From the standpoint of a properly functioning democracy, each party must discuss the details of measures to deal with such situations.

 

Neither of each house’s Commission on the Constitution has held a meeting during the current Diet session. The opposition parties rejected calls from the ruling parties to hold a meeting, saying discussions on emergencies should be held in ordinary times.

 

For the time being, relevant committees should deliberate on measures to deal with the ongoing spread of infections, but the commissions’ duty is to discuss the proper form of the nation’s supreme law in the context of issues in real time. It is hard to understand the opposition bloc’s stance of refusing discussions.

 

The ruling and opposition parties should pave the way for an early start to discussions.

 

Military threats from China and North Korea will intensify. The role of the Self-Defense Forces in protecting the nation and its people is becoming increasingly important.

 

It is also necessary to work on an amendment to Article 9 of the Constitution to stipulate the legal grounds for the Self-Defense Forces and dispel the lingering belief among some people that the SDF is unconstitutional. It is important for the LDP to persistently appeal to the public about the content and significance of the revision.

 

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 3, 2020.

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