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Monday, Sept. 26, 2005


Constitutional debate welcome

NEW YORK -- I was recently intrigued by the constitutional debate -- not in Iraq, but in Japan -- when I read a book on the art of writing, "Bungei Tokuhon," that Yukio Mishima dictated in 1958.

Any mention of Mishima and the Japanese Constitution in the same breath is likely to provoke incredulity, if not mirth. After all, he is the man who harangued a unit of the Self-Defense Forces and, failing to incite it to a revolt, turned toward the Imperial Palace and shouted "Long live the Emperor!" before plunging a sword into his stomach.

So, what did Mishima say a dozen years before his constitutional agitation? "I think you will remember that constitution was a mysterious literal translation of English after the war's ending," he said, "that literal translation of the MacArthur constitution. It was composed, yes, with something resembling prose in spoken language in Japanese, but it was a truly monstrous, hideous prose, and not a few people must have felt the sorrow of the Occupied at the fact that it became the Japanese Constitution."

What fascinates is that Mishima says this in a chapter where he describes, with his characteristic erudition, how hon'yaku-bun, or language resulting from the act of translation, though not necessarily "translatese," has exerted "the most profound influence" on the language that modern Japanese writers employ, that is, kogo-bun, or writing in spoken language. This process has been crucial, he says, because it is "what linked Japanese history to the world history of the West."

To illustrate, he cites a range of examples, but one in particular strikes home. Referring to a young contemporary, then a rising star, he asks: "Who would doubt if told that Mr. Kenzaburo Oe's writing, as it is, is a translation of Sartre?" His own answer made the point: "though in prewar days (Oe's) writing would have been regarded as translatese, now, we don't feel it's that much of translatese." In other words, the sense of language evolves.

Most of us enjoy far less linguistic acuity and are unlikely to find the language of "the MacArthur constitution" odd, let alone "monstrous" or "hideous." But those who advocate revising the Constitution reflect what lay behind Mishima's argument at the time: The Constitution was an imposition (oshitsuke). Or as Russian-born journalist Mark Gayn observed as early as 1946 in "Tokyo Diary": "It is an alien Constitution foisted on the Japanese government, and then presented as a native product, when any Japanese high school student simply by reading it can perceive its foreign origin" (entry of March 4, 1946).

To put it in Mishima's own more political terms, the Constitution's principal character is "the absence of Japan" as it is the act of "an acrobat who can't help riding the dynamics of international politics." That's what he said in a blueprint for constitutional reform he prepared for his group toward the end of 1969. A graduate of the Faculty of Law of Tokyo University, he knew what he was doing.

That aspect of the Constitution is evident in Article 9: the renunciation of war and armed forces. It directly reflected the U.S. government's political expedience at that point in history. Britain and the Soviet Union, the powerful members of the Far Eastern Commission, were demanding prosecution of Emperor Showa as a war criminal, whereas some strong voices within the U.S. government counseled against it, saying that governance of Japan would be difficult without the Emperor. Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew, who had served as ambassador to Japan, was one of them. The compromise was for Japan "to renounce war forever, abolish her armed forces, and pledge never to revive them."

Gayn, quoting these words, wrote: "nothing in the Constitution is more wrong than General MacArthur's own provision for the renunciation of armed forces." He was right but for the wrong reasons. Article 9 began to lose its meaning even as the Constitution took effect on May 3, 1947, but not because militarism is "as inevitable in Japan as earthquakes." The "fraud," if it was as Gayn called it, was "inherent" in the genesis of the article itself. None other than MacArthur began to urge Japan to arm itself. So was born the 70,000-man Police Reserve in 1950, which became the Security Force in 1952, which, in turn, became the Self-Defense Forces in 1954. My father, a former member of the Special Higher Police that MacArthur disbanded, briefly joined the Security Force.

I became aware of the lie that was Article 9 in high school. "The Self-Defense Forces are obviously unconstitutional," to quote Mishima again. My realization may be comparable, if a bit highfalutin, to an American slave's discovery of the flat assertion in the American Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal."

Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University who for a while advised on the Iraqi Constitution, last month wrote in The New York Times that it was "driven at breakneck pace by American pressure to meet an unnecessary deadline."

Something similar may be said of the Japanese Constitution, which has some easily recognizable contradictions. To see how they may be corrected without much fuss, you can check the version that then Diet member Yasuhiro Nakasone, who would serve as prime minister in the 1980s, drafted in 1961.

This doesn't mean I'm unconditionally for dropping Article 9. I agree with those who argue that it has enabled Japan to do what it has accomplished economically, without contributing overtly to military disturbances in East Asia or elsewhere. At least it has helped to restrain Japan's arms export.

Above all, I am grateful that the New Dealers who dominated the team tasked to write a new constitution for Japan managed to create one that was in some ways ahead of the U.S. Constitution. To cite just one example, the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee basic education for all. The Japanese Constitution does: "All people shall have the right to receive an equal education" (Article 26). This is something I learned not long ago while looking up U.S. Supreme Court decisions on school financing.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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