One week has passed since the first temblor of the Kumamoto earthquakes struck. Aftershocks are continuing to rattle Kumamoto Prefecture and surrounding areas of Kyushu, and the national government and local bodies concerned have been pressed to take measures to respond to the crisis, including preventing deaths caused indirectly by the disaster.
Conflict between the ruling and opposition parties is intensifying in the Diet ahead of the summer House of Councillors election. It is necessary for the Diet to debate policy measures, but both ruling and opposition parties need to prevent their political maneuvering from adversely affecting the government's response to the deadly temblors. The legislature should scrutinize the government's response to the quakes and make specific proposals to extend relief to the victims and restore disaster-ravaged areas.
The Kumamoto earthquakes have directly and indirectly affected the schedule of the ongoing Diet session. Diet debate between party leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) leader Katsuya Okada, has been postponed. A draft resolution to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement and relevant bills are a focal point of the latter half of the current Diet session, but it is now difficult for the legislature to pass them into law by the close of business on June 1.
The Diet needs enough time for deliberations on the TPP to clarify problems and uncertain points, and deepen public understanding. The ruling coalition had aimed to have the draft resolution and relevant bills clear the House of Representatives by the end of April. Under the current circumstances, however, it is inevitable that enactment will be postponed until an extraordinary Diet session in autumn.
While the executive branch of the government is primarily responsible for the quake response, the legislative branch can also play an important role. The Budget Committees as well as special panels on disaster management of both chambers of the Diet should identify problems faced by the disaster-hit areas and hold discussions on what kind of specific relief measures should be prioritized. Prime Minister Abe, who leads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the DP's Okada should frequently hold consultations on the issue.
The government intends to allocate money for measures to respond to the Kumamoto quakes from the state budget's reserve funds. However, there are calls within the ruling coalition for compilation of a supplementary budget to finance recovery work. The current Diet session ends on June 1, but the legislature should consider extending the session depending on the content of assistance measures, although there are schedule restrictions due to the upcoming upper house race.
Politicians should take the situation of the quake-stricken areas seriously and be careful of what they say. Toranosuke Katayama, co-leader of Osaka Ishin no Kai (Initiatives from Osaka), reportedly described the disaster as a "very timely earthquake," when he talked about the possible impact of the temblors on the political situation and schedule. He immediately retracted his remark, saying, "My choice of words was inappropriate." However, such a remark could offend many quake victims dealing with many lives lost and a prolonged evacuation, and give the public the impression that politicians are not seriously thinking about disaster-affected areas.
Shortly after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the outbreak of the nuclear crisis, then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who headed the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), asked then LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki for cooperation on the assumption that the DPJ and the LDP would form a grand coalition. However, such a coalition was not realized because Kan's request came abruptly. The request only caused confusion to the political situation at the time. Moreover, the DPJ was rocked by internal strife while it was responding to the triple disasters and ended up damaging the public's trust in politics. A serious lesson should be learned from these events.
The Diet is a venue for policy debate. However, ruling and opposition parties should express broad opinions on disaster response in search of common ground. Politicians should bring together their wisdom to swiftly support the quake-hit areas.