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Editorial: As pandemic eerily evokes wartime Japan, gov't must prioritize lives

Amid a state of emergency declared in six prefectures including Tokyo and Osaka over the coronavirus crisis, Japan observed the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 15.

    The government-sponsored national memorial ceremony for the war dead, which prior to the coronavirus outbreak had about 6,000 participants every year, was attended by 185 this year, the lowest number of participants in history. There were some local governments that canceled their own memorial services altogether.

    The coronavirus pandemic is casting a shadow on our efforts to honor the dead and hope for peace. While people who have experienced war firsthand and their bereaved family members grow older and older, the numbers of those who visit museums across Japan that convey the realities of war are dropping.

    People are being asked to refrain from going out and dining together, while restaurants are facing painful predicaments due to instructions to shorten their hours, leading to a spreading sense of stagnation across society.

    We must be cautious about comparing phenomena whose time periods and circumstances differ. But our everyday lives amid the coronavirus pandemic evoke days from wartime.

    During World War II, people were at the mercy of state power. They were sent to the battlefield with a single draft notice, and had to live hand-to-mouth as they were forced to provide labor and take rations.

    On display at the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage in Tokyo's Koto Ward is a replica of a room under blackout. Katsumoto Saotome, a novelist and the previous director of the center who experienced the Tokyo air raids on March 10, 1945 when he was 12 years old, said, "Society today under the coronavirus pandemic has come to resemble my childhood years."

    He has not forgotten the Imperial Headquarters' radio report from that day: "While fires occurred in various areas in Tokyo, the fire at the Ministry of the Imperial Household's stables was put out at 2:35, and the others were put out by around 8:00." Saotome continued, "The 1 million people who were affected by the fires and the 100,000 who died were brushed off simply as 'others.'"

    The undervaluing of common people's lives continued into the postwar era.

    The former West Germany passed a war victim support law and assisted everyday citizens in order for them to get back on their feet. Japan, meanwhile, placed priority on redress for former military personnel, civilian military employees, and their bereaved families, and for a long time, a relief system for civilians was placed on the back burner.

    What stood in the way was the endurance doctrine, which demands that loss of life, bodily injury, and loss of assets during a time of emergency be endured equally by all citizens.

    Ken Arimitsu, who heads the Support & Documentation Center for the ex-POWs and Internees by Soviet Russia after the WWII, Japan (SDCPIS), said, "The national government has no respect for the citizens who have been forced to make sacrifices."

    A relief bill for air bombing victims was compiled in the fall of 2020, but because the ruling and opposition parties were unable to put up a united front, it has yet to be submitted to the Diet. Relief measures for residents who were exposed to black rain after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the U.S. military have also yet to be resolved.

    The current situation in which ordinary citizens are bearing the brunt of the strains caused by the pandemic is no different. The payment of cooperation funds to businesses that conformed to authorities' requests to cut back on operating hours or refrain from serving alcohol, and of assistance money to people in need has been delayed. The healthcare system is under great pressure, and there have been a series of cases in which people have died at home because they couldn't be hospitalized due to space shortages.

    The disaster of World War II was brought on by the optimism of the Imperial Japanese Army, which was obsessed with its successes of the past. At the time, the military had not sufficiently prepared for defeat in major operations.

    The book "Shippai no honshitsu: Nihon-gun no soshikironteki kenkyu" (The essence of failure: research on the Japanese military's organizational theory), which analyzed the defects of the former Imperial Japanese Army, brings into sharp relief how the military obsessed over the outdated fighting tactics that brought them victory in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, and increasingly lost the ability to adapt to change.

    One of the coauthors, Ryoichi Tobe, professor emeritus at the National Defense Academy, warned, "Japan, from rebuilding to its period of rapid economic growth, and its evolution into an economic giant, continued to move forward with its economy as its priority, and never truly confronted how it would deal with risks in an emergency."

    What we need now is a form of politics that protects people's lives and peace while tackling risks head-on. It is the legislative branch of government, comprising representatives of the people, that will fill an important role.

    The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his work "Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch," argued that only in a political system in which the legislative branch is separated from the executive branch can peace be realized. In other words, a strong legislature is needed.

    Kant went on to say that citizens must prepare themselves for shouldering the various types of suffering from war, and compared the tendencies of a people who avoid war to being cautious of starting gambles that are not worth the expense.

    It is necessary to look at past examples in which the line between the executive and legislative branches of government grew blurry and we ran straight into war. In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler seized legislative power from parliament, while in Japan, under a state of national mobilization, the Imperial Diet turned into a mere facade.

    What concerns us is Japan's reality today: the imbalance in our governing system that has occurred in the name of political leadership. More power has been given to the prime minister's office, and the hollowing out of the country's highest governing body -- the Diet -- has progressed; the latter has resigned itself to the position of subcontractor for the government.

    A general election will take place before the end of October. Precisely because we are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, we need to realize a society that prioritizes human life over all else. Reclaiming the Diet's power within politics would be a starting point.

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