Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Careful debate needed on constitutional provision for disasters

"When Japan's postwar Constitution was put into force 64 years ago on May 3, 1947, rubble and ruins caused by American air raids remained in various parts of the nation. Japan's recovery and reconstruction from the devastation wrought by the war had barely begun.

"Now, we are in the middle of the worst national crisis since the end of World War II, as the Great East Japan Earthquake has left wide areas in northeastern Japan in ruins and triggered a nuclear disaster.

"The nation is facing the colossal challenge of helping disaster victims rebuild their shattered lives and restore their livelihoods while supporting the recovery and reconstruction of cities and towns in broad areas ravaged by the calamity.

"The challenge raises the knotty question of how to strike a balance between private rights and public interests. The issue requires serious public debate from the viewpoint of the Constitution.

"Immediately after Japan was hit by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11, the nation's grass roots demonstrated strength and power.

"As days passed by, however, the calamity increasingly made clearer the importance of the government's role as the ultimate guardian of the people's lives and rights.

"What should be done, for instance, to support people whose houses were swept away by the tsunami?

"In Japan, there was no system for the government to compensate for the losses of private properties.

"After a fierce controversy following such natural disasters as the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which flattened the city of Kobe and surrounding areas in 1995, and a powerful quake that rocked western parts of Tottori Prefecture in 2000, the current program of public financial support for recovery of damaged private properties was established. It provides up to 3 million yen ($37,000) for housing reconstruction by disaster victims.

"The March 11 calamity has provoked calls for raising the maximum amount of financial support provided under the program.

"There is also the serious problem of people facing the prospect of having to borrow money to repair their houses while still making mortgage payments.

"What about people who cannot return to their homes because of radiation leaks from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant? How much burden should the government and society as a whole bear for supporting such people?

"These are, however, not the only weighty questions.

"In affected areas, some residents are already building prefabricated houses amid the rubble on their own.

"We deeply sympathize with the natural desire of disaster victims to live in their own homes.

"But there can be cases where a certain degree of restriction on use of privately owned land is necessary and justifiable from the viewpoint of rebuilding the areas while making them less vulnerable to future disasters.

"The government should work with local authorities concerned to swiftly craft a plan to deal with related issues. It needs to win support from disaster victims for the plan by specifically explaining the extent of necessary restrictions on private rights and the approach adopted for such restrictions.

"Some people are arguing for a constitutional revision to overcome the conflict between private rights and public interests.

"Lawmakers of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, for instance, are calling for a new constitutional provision to cope with emergencies.

"The envisaged provision would expand the government's powers during large-scale natural disasters and restrict people's human rights. Proponents, of course, may feel the provision could be invoked during national security crises.

"But such a constitutional provision could undermine the system to check the power of the government. Remember what happened in the United States after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. The provision could cause a serious erosion in the nation's democracy itself.

"Quite a few things can be done under the current legal framework.

"Only after these policy options are duly explored, careful debate should start on limitations in the current Constitution and the legal framework.

"A cool-headed approach is important in dealing with this issue all the more because the nation is in a crisis."

By Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 5/3/2011), Link to article (last visited 5/5/2011)

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