Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presses the need for amending the Constitution in a video message on May 3, Constitution Day. (From YouTube site)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 3 pushed constitutional revision to deal with the coronavirus crisis, but his suggestion was met with criticism that he is exploiting the pandemic to promote his pet project.

Abe’s speech, as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was streamed for members of a group associated with Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), a conservative organization and power base that has long called for rewriting the Constitution.

May 3 was Constitution Day, a national holiday.

Abe referred to the state of emergency the central government first issued on April 7 to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, saying, “It is an extremely significant issue how to spell out in the Constitution the roles that the state and the general public must play in order to ride out a national crisis.”

He called for Diet debate to establish a new article in the Constitution to allow for emergency Cabinet orders to temporarily restrict personal rights to help the government deal with large-scale natural disasters.

It is one of the LDP’s revision proposals made in 2018.

Abe also reiterated the need to clearly state the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces in war-renouncing Article 9, which currently prohibits Japan from maintaining land, sea and air forces.

The prime minister noted that SDF members have been involved in the battle against the coronavirus.

“We will put an end to the debate over the constitutionality of the SDF,” he said.

Abe has repeatedly expressed his resolve to achieve the first revisions of the postwar Constitution while he is LDP chief. His term is scheduled to end in September 2021.

“I understand a path to the revision will be rocky, but I am determined to make it happen together with you,” he said in his speech.

A senior official with the prime minister’s office acknowledged that Abe is keen to advance Diet discussions on revising the Constitution because there has been little progress so far.

But many others, including lawmakers of the ruling coalition, assailed Abe for the timing of his renewed push for the revision.

“We are afraid that it will be taken as a move to capitalize on the crisis,” a senior LDP official said.

Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, distanced itself from the LDP in a statement released on May 3.

“Some are arguing for the establishment of an article allowing for emergency Cabinet orders through the amendment of the Constitution, but such a step can already be taken under the existing law,” Komeito’s statement said.

The opposition bloc condemned Abe’s attempt to move forward the Diet debate over constitutional revision at this critical juncture in the COVID-19 health crisis.

“This is the very time for the government to ensure that people can maintain the minimum standards of healthy and cultured living based on constitutionalism,” Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), said on a program of Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) on May 3. “(The prime minister) should not call for debate over constitutional revision by taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Akira Koike, head of the secretariat of the Japanese Communist Party, echoed that view.

“Now is the worst time to bring up the subject of revising the Constitution,” he said. “You cannot blame the Constitution for the government’s approach that is not working in response to the spread of the coronavirus.”

The Abe government has been heavily criticized over its handling of the pandemic, including a lack of widespread testing and relief packages for businesses suffering financial losses under authorities’ requests to shut down.

But some LDP legislators point out the merits of adding an article for emergency Cabinet orders, saying that the government, for example, could enforce the order to “stay home” in the current crisis.

Under the current state of emergency, authorities can ask the public to take or refrain from certain actions based on the special measures law, but they cannot enforce such requests. There are no penalties for those who do not comply.

The LDP’s proposal for the Cabinet orders article was initially aimed at dealing with disasters through steps to temporarily restrict people’s rights.

Some LDP lawmakers are now saying that such orders should also cover outbreaks of infectious diseases.

“It is desirable to have an article for the emergency orders in the Constitution to allow the government to swiftly declare a state of emergency,” former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said on his Facebook page.

But the CDP and other opposition parties argue that restricting personal rights in a crisis is already possible under the existing legal framework, and that taking steps to amend the Constitution for that goal is unnecessary.

Yukio Edano, head of the CDP who is also a lawyer, dismissed the LDP’s argument that a constitutional revision was needed to issue emergency Cabinet orders.

“It is completely wrong,” he said. “You cannot say emergency Cabinet orders are not allowable due to the constitutional limit.”

He said personal rights can be curbed to a certain extent depending on the severity of the situation under the principle of public welfare enshrined under the Constitution.