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Japan Diet ends coronavirus-dominated session without extension

This March 14, 2019 file photo shows Japan's parliament building in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan's parliament on Wednesday wrapped up a 150-day session after the ruling coalition rejected calls from the opposition for an extension to the year's end to cope with the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

The ruling and opposition parties instead settled on a compromise plan to hold committee sessions to discuss the coronavirus response while parliament is in recess. As a result, the opposition bloc did not, as per their custom, submit a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The end of the session came after Japan emerged from a nationwide state of emergency Abe declared to fight the spread of the coronavirus but his handling of the epidemic and a series of scandals have sharply weakened public support.

Opposition parties had demanded that the parliamentary session be extended until Dec. 28 as many questions are left unanswered.

"If requested, the government will fulfill accountability even during a parliamentary recess," Abe told reporters at his office.

Abe is scheduled to meet the press on Thursday, the prime minister's office said, a day before restrictions on travel across prefectural borders due to the coronavirus will be removed in Japan.

Opposition party lawmakers are urging the government to give further explanations as to why it suddenly suspended a plan to deploy Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense systems designed to counter ballistic missile threats from North Korea.

The government on Monday announced the suspension of the missile plan that had been fervently pushed by Abe, citing technical and cost issues.

"The government will evade its responsibility to explain if the Diet session is closed," Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief of the largest opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said.

The session began on Jan. 20 when Japan had yet to register a domestic transmission of the coronavirus. As the virus spread, parliament passed two extra budgets totaling about 57.5 trillion yen ($536 billion) for the current fiscal year to help fund an emergency package to help alleviate the negative impact on households and businesses.

Abe rolled out a plan to distribute reusable cloth face masks to all households, but they proved unpopular for their small size and slow delivery. He also made an about-face in accepting a 100,000 yen per-person cash handout plan pushed by Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Although Abe has said the infection situation is under control in Japan, the full-fledged restart of social and economic activities is expected to take more time. Health experts have warned of another wave of coronavirus infections, advising people to remain vigilant and maintain social distancing.

Besides the coronavirus epidemic, a controversial bill to raise the retirement age for top prosecutors came under intense scrutiny, drawing widespread criticism from celebrities to former top prosecutors that the move would put the independence of the judiciary system at risk.

The government and ruling coalition decided to seek its passage but scrapped it later with an eye to submitting a fresh one without a controversial provision that would allow the Cabinet to keep certain high-ranking prosecutors longer at its discretion.

In May, Hiromu Kurokawa -- the then No. 2 prosecutor in Japan who was seen as a favorite by the prime minister's office to become the prosecutor general -- resigned after admitting that he had played mahjong for money, dealing a blow to Abe whose cabinet had approved his retirement extension.

Just as the Diet session drew to a close, former justice minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife Anri on Wednesday offered to leave the LDP led by Abe amid vote-buying allegations that they both have denied.

Lower house member Katsuyuki Kawai, a special advisor to Abe on foreign affairs, stepped down as justice minister last year. Anri Kawai won her seat in the upper house election last July and the couple allegedly handed out cash to buy votes during campaigning.

Following a coronavirus-forced one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics until the summer of 2021, Abe is expected to step up efforts to prevent a resurgence of virus infections.

The total number of confirmed cases in Japan has topped 18,000 with some 950 deaths. That includes about 700 cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama in February, over which Tokyo came under global criticism.

In August, Abe is set to become the longest-serving prime minister for an uninterrupted period, exceeding his great uncle Eisaku Sato, the current record holder.

On the diplomatic front, no new date has been set for a postponed state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping. U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated he wants to hold a summit meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in September or later.

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