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Editorial: Japan's special coronavirus law needs care to avoid state power excesses

The Japanese government is moving to add the novel coronavirus to the country's special measures law for tackling new types of influenza. The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) has indicated it will back the legal revision.

The special measures law is designed to protect the Japanese people from a fast-spreading contagion, and reduce its impact on the country's economy and daily life. Opposition parties have insisted that the law is sufficient as written to tackle the coronavirus. However, the government holds that its provisions "do not apply" to the current outbreak. Of course, it is most important to direct efforts to preventing the virus' spread, but it is surely also necessary to create a legal framework for dealing with the worst-case scenario should that come to pass.

At the core of the special measures law is the right it confers to the prime minister to declare a state of emergency.

If such a declaration is issued, Japan's prefectural governors can request or order restrictions on the public use of facilities such as schools, sports centers and movie theaters. They can also forcibly requisition land to establish temporary medical facilities.

The influenza law is modeled on the civil protection law and other measures for managing national crises. It puts severe limits on personal rights, and so any emergency declaration should be considered very carefully.

Nevertheless, the standards for issuing this declaration are very vague. Under the current special measures law, there are just two conditions: that "there is a risk of grave damage to the lives or health of the Japanese people," and that "there is a major impact on the daily lives and economy due to the sudden and nationwide spread (of an infection)."

Under the enforcement ordinance for implementing the special measures law, severe impact on lives and health is defined as heavy symptoms presenting at a rate significantly higher than for seasonal influenza. The requirements for issuing a state of emergency should be more clearly stated in the legislation and subsequent enforcement ordinances, including a concrete definition of "spread."

When it comes time to decide on an emergency declaration, it is necessary for the administration to consult not just infectious disease experts on the declaration's length and geographical extent, but also people related to education, economics, and other fields.

Furthermore, no emergency declaration should ever be issued for arbitrary political reasons. More than once, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's response to the coronavirus outbreak has appeared ad hoc, not least his request in late February that every school in the nation be shuttered until spring vacation. Meanwhile, some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been calling for adding a national emergency article to the Constitution granting the central government sweeping powers in a crisis. This raises very serious concerns about letting the government decide exactly what would constitute a national emergency.

Prime Minister Abe called for cooperation from opposition parties on the influenza law revisions at a recent party leaders' meeting. Of course, dealing with COVID-19 is top on the political agenda. However, there are many other problems still on the table, including the scandals surrounding the prime minister's annual sakura-viewing parties. Abe should provide convincing explanations himself and, through these, bring ruling and opposition parties together to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

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