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Editorial: Japan PM Abe hiding from Diet amid COVID-19 resurgence

Japan has seen a rapid resurgence of novel coronavirus infections mainly in Tokyo in recent weeks. Amid this serious situation, one is left wondering if the National Diet is fulfilling its role.

It has been a month since the regular Diet session ended without an extension. Following the closure of the session, out-of-session meetings have been held once every week in principle in both houses of the Diet. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, has so far attended none of them. Given his absence, it is obvious that those Diet deliberations have had their limits.

An extraordinary Diet session should be convened immediately in order to prepare the nation for swift responses to day-to-day changes in the coronavirus crisis.

This past week, the budget committees of both chambers of the Diet held their own out-of-session meetings.

While experts summoned to those meetings as unsworn witnesses expressed a profound sense of crisis over the status quo surrounding the coronavirus, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura went no further than reporting on the current circumstances. The budget panels failed to delve into how Japan will cope with the viral threat.

An issue garnering particular attention is the government's "Go To Travel" campaign, a tourism subsidy program to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The program is slated to begin on July 22 despite the recent resurgence in new coronavirus infections. Just days before its launch, the government made the hasty decision to exclude trips to and from Tokyo, which has seen a spike in infections, from the nationwide program.

This decision, however, came shortly after an upper house budget committee session had wrapped up. At a question-and-answer session during that meeting, government representatives had merely reiterated that they would "look into the matter after hearing opinions from experts."

The sudden exclusion of Tokyo can only be described as a last-minute response -- a consequence of the government making light of the Diet. Concerned businesses and others in various quarters have been thrown into confusion due to this policy U-turn. The government, meanwhile, has failed to provide sufficient explanations over whether the controversial travel aid program can be launched without problems if Tokyo alone is excluded.

The government's fundamental stance in handling coronavirus-related issues -- including not only the travel subsidy program but also the problem of how to best strike a balance between measures to prevent the spread of infections and efforts to promote economic recovery -- is being called into question. It is imperative that Prime Minister Abe, who holds the ultimate responsibility in the government's decision-making process, provide a proper explanation on these issues.

Why the ruling coalition refuses to have Abe attend budget committee meetings is beyond comprehension. His absence even prompts one to suspect that the prime minister is attempting to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of economic revitalization minister Nishimura.

In areas that have recently witnessed a resurgence in coronavirus infections, the possibility of local authorities issuing renewed business closure requests to restaurants and other establishments cannot be ruled out. Governors in some prefectures have even started to call for legal revisions to introduce penalties for business operators that do not comply with such requests.

It is necessary to convene the Diet to swiftly and sufficiently debate these issues.

Issues demanding immediate Diet debate are not just limited to those concerning the novel coronavirus. It is essential to hold Diet deliberations over measures to respond to the damage centered on the Kyushu region in southwestern Japan due to torrential rains. The public will be left anxious if the government is given a carte blanche over the use of the massive reserve funds of 10 trillion yen (about $93.4 billion) allocated in the second supplementary budget.

If Prime Minister Abe and the ruling parties believe out-of-session meetings are enough to cope with the current situation, they are grossly neglecting their duties.

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