Soft Lockdown in Japan

By Ichiro Suzuki


For the first time ever in post-WWII Japan, emergency was declared amid coronavirus infections that looked on the verge of breaking out. The declaration was based on a law hastily written in late March. Though it was declared, it cannot force people to do, or not to do, this and that. It allows the authority to make strong requests to people to stay at home and shops and restaurants not to open. The prime minister or governors still lack the power to order citizen to do something, unlike the counterparts in other countries. Japanese citizen may choose not to respond to such requests. Nevertheless, the vast majority, let’s say over 70%,  of people listen, understanding the meaning of the request. In addition, there is strong implicit social pressure to conform. This pressure has always been considered as a factor that makes Japan an uncomfortable place to live, especially in the rural area. The authority’s lack of stronger power is an over-reaction to the police state that ruled the country until the end of WWII. The state stepped into every single aspect of its citizens’ life as the war progressed to a desperate end in the first half of the 1940s. Once defeated, General Douglas MacArthur tried to make sure that Japan never repeats the mistake of its Imperial age. After all, the U.S. occupation forces overdid it by, above all, banning the possession of military forces in the Article 9 of the Constitution that they wrote essentially. As it turned out, General MacArthur quickly reversed his stance on the armed forces and urged Japan to rearm, once the U.S. recognized the threat of communism in East Asia as well as Central Europe. Military forces are still banned in theory by the Article 9. The newly created Self Defense Force (SDF) technically dodges the Article 9, defining its mission only as defense of its land, while banning its deployment outside the country. So the SDF didn’t go anywhere outside the country over 40 years since its creation. That changed, however, in early 1991 with the Gulf War when the U.S.-led allied forces attacked Iraq following its invasion and occupation of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. Japan was urged to participate in the invasion of Iraq, and did so through reinterpretation of the Article 9. A straightforward way of allowing the SDF to deploy overseas on a limited mission was to amend the Article 9. However, the bar is set extremely high for amending the Constitution: two-thirds of the votes in both chambers of the Diet, followed by a majority vote in a referendum. In fact, this has never been done ever since the post-war Constitution was written in 1947. Japan holds onto the every single text of the Constitution for over 70 years. Left-leaning opposition parties are vehemently against any kind of amendment of the Constitution, let alone the Auricle 9. Doing it has been PM Abe’s long-held wish. He has currently enough votes in the Diet mathematically but his political capital is wearing thin due to a series of minor scandals on which oppositions consume time, and of course coronavirus. Even if the bill gets through the Diet, it would be defeated in a referendum undef the current political climate. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been running the Japanese government all but three years since the party was formed in 1955. Oppositions have been weak most of the time but still has been displaying their existence, by fiercely opposing any sign of the LDP’s move toward right, including the expansion of the SDF’s role. They are also extremely vocal on any move that tries to limit the rights of citizens especially if such a move allows the state to intrude into privacy of citizens. Of course, it is essential for the state to protect citizens’ rights and privacy. However, the post-war tradition of distorted liberalism has undermined the state’s ability to protect its secrecy that is considered as a vital interest of the country, in the age of China’s meteoric rise and Russia’s revanchism. After months of uproars on the street and media campaigns against it, the Specific Secret Protection Act (SSPA) passed the Diet near the end of 2014. The government at last was given a legal framework to act on national security, diplomacy and terrorism. The SSPA, however, still remains a weaker version of what other countries have with their ant-spy acts. Tokyo is said to be spies’ paradise. Coronavirus brought to light  weak authority given to the Japanese government in emergency, due to this background. The emergency that the government can declare under the new law still cannot restrict citizens’ life forcefully for the greater public good. The government, and governors in this particular case, can only make strong requests to citizens to stay home and close restaurants and bars. They can only ask people not to go to work. Cities can’t be shutdown. The Japanese government wants its citizens to reduce contacts with people by 80%, which appears to be an overly ambitious goal under the current framework. A number of people still go out to work on crowded trains. It would take much longer than initially hoped to level off new infection cases.


About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.

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