I hadn’t planned on reading the Liberal Democratic Party’s propaganda comic on constitutional change for the same reason I don’t watch NHK, listen to AKB48 or use my underpants as an ashtray. Yet, as a piece of Japanese legal cultural history, perhaps it merits comment.
Published in April, as with most comics produced by authority figures for an adult population, it seems rooted in the assumption that the people are stupidly incapable of absorbing information unless it comes packaged in a pictorial medium using word balloons and comfortably familiar stereotypes. “Honobono Ikka no Kenpo Kaisei tte Nani?” (“The Honobono Family Asks: What are Constitutional Revisions?”) delivers on this with a family of well-intentioned archetypes who stumble down the carefully laid, logical (ha ha) path to the conclusion Japan needs a new Constitution.
Whether or not the public is convinced, however, is moot. A Lower House committee passed security bills Wednesday against the strong wishes of opposition parties that will allow the Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective self-defense if an ally is under attack.
The comic opens during the Golden Week holidays. The five members of the Honobono family — father Ichiro, mother Yuko, 2-year-old son Shota, grandfather Shiro and great-grandfather Senzo — are enjoying a lazy day at home. Senzo is 92 and here you must appreciate the likely dilemma involved in designing this family to include anyone who can speak authoritatively about “the way things used to be,” they really have to be well into their 90s but compos mentis as well.
Senzo starts out sitting in a corner quivering: his body emits the words puru puru, the Japanese onomatopoeia used to describe the trembling of little purebred dogs that elderly women carry around in handbags and which are useless for anything except maybe distracting hungry komodo dragons from your children. Fortunately, once Senzo gets his false teeth in (ha ha, old people!) he proves to be the most coherent, knowledgeable and wise person in the family. Just like real life! So the over-arching theme of the comic is of a nonagenarian explaining to the befuddled younger generations how things are and the youngsters coming to accept it. Just like real life!
Contrary to what you might expect from a political party that supposedly wants to empower Japanese women, the story begins with the sole woman in the household acting hysterical and helpless. The day is May 3, Constitution Day, and Yuko is stressed because the newspapers are full of stories about a constitutional amendment that she doesn’t understand. The only thing she’s clear on is that changing Article 9 sounds scary. Yuko, portrayed as unintelligent, overly emotional and incapable of researching the topic herself, then throttles her husband in a comical non-domestic violence sort of way and demands that he figure out what’s going on so she can relax.
Grandpa Shiro, 64, points out that the Constitution is older than he is, dating back to when there were no smartphones. This shocks Yuko, who can’t imagine how people made reservations for lunch without such devices — let alone how systems of government are designed. (Note: the appeal to modernity here is more than slightly ironic given the LDP’s advocacy of supposedly traditional values.)
Shiro adds that when the Constitution was adopted, there were also no stalkers, environmental problems or privacy either (it makes sense if you don’t think about it). This is the cue for Yuko to utter what must be the most idiotic comment ever made about the Japanese — or any — Constitution ever: It is not “eco-friendly.”
Having stopped trembling, Senzo chimes in with a long speech about how the Constitution came into being. He makes a few good points — the Constitution’s preamble does come across as a clumsily translated mishmash of American idealism (because it is) and the basic framework of the whole charter was forced on the Japanese government by Douglas MacArthur over the space of a few weeks during February and March of 1946. He forgets to mention that part of the rush was to have a draft in place before the other allied nations could start to meddle in the constitutional amendment process and to protect the Emperor from being put on trial for war crimes. But then the manga barely mentions the Emperor, even though the LDP’s proposed amendments would give him a more prominent role in state affairs.
In the next chapter, the family is picnicking at a Self-Defense Forces air show (as one does). Yuko still opposes constitutional change because apparently women have an irrational fear of war. The conversation turns to Chapter 3 of the Constitution, where the rights and duties of the Japanese people are enshrined. The old guys don’t waste any time talking about the rights they enjoyed for all or most of their lives; because the important thing for youngsters to understand is that these rights are limited by the public welfare. Senzo explains, “You are free to do whatever you want so long as you don’t infringe anyone’s human rights.” This is a subtle but crucial transformation of human rights that simply takes for granted that most human rights violations are the result of other citizens exercising their pesky freedoms, rather than government officials violating the Constitution.
Senzo then “old-mansplains” what the Constitution lacks: protections for privacy, the environment or crime victims. Why these need to be enshrined in the Constitution rather than dealt with through regular legislation (which already provide protections in these areas) is unexplained. But they sound good, so how could anyone be against them?
The subject then turns to earthquakes and how the Constitution does not anticipate them. Yuko and Ichiro cling to each other in shock when learning of the apparent idiocy of an earthquake-prone nation having a Constitution that doesn’t allow the executive branch to rule by decree in national emergencies. It’s amusing because with just a bit of correction fluid and a pen, you could turn these pages into a discussion about having an energy strategy based on nuclear power plants.
Unfortunately, if anything would have demonstrated specific constitutional defects that could be readily articulated to an understanding general public, it would have been the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. But it didn’t. So instead Senzo spouts a bunch of nonsense about what a mess it would be if there was a massive earthquake the day before an election instead (He doesn’t actually say, but what’s the worst that could happen? Only the Komeito voters show up?)
In any case, the familiar fear of earthquakes leads into a predictable discussion about emergency powers and Article 9. Yuko takes some comfort in learning that the current constitutional prohibition on involuntary servitude will keep little Shota from being conscripted, but Senzo sets her straight by explaining that even without a draft, somebody will have to go off and fight for the country. (Strangely, the old guys don’t get around to discussing what would happen to their pensions if there was a war.)
The next chapter takes place at a seaside resort. Senzo has previously explained how gosh-darn hard it is to amend the Constitution, the family starts discussing how frequently other countries have amended theirs since 1947: South Korea at nine times, the United States at six, France at 27 and Germany at 60! Constitutional change comes across as some sort of international hot-dog eating contest, Japan trailing in last place with a nil score, handicapped by the terrible lockjaw of a high threshold for passing amendments.
This sort of mindless comparison to other countries is not uncommon in Japanese legal spheres, but in a propaganda comic it comes across as the political equivalent of “all the other kids at school are getting their ears pierced, so why can’t I?” Yet this fact is so important that Senzo’s eyes emit beams that project the necessary comparative information onto a nearby wall.
Interestingly, though, one comparison that is missing is to the country’s first Constitution, the Meiji Constitution of 1889, which is still revered by some conservatives but, perhaps inconveniently, lasted a good 50 years without a single amendment (the current Constitution having procedurally been brought about as an amendment to the prior one). Moreover, the parliamentary threshold in the Meiji Constitution (approval of two-thirds of both Diet chambers) was essentially the same as under the current charter, the principal differences being that the Meiji Constitution required an imperial decree to initiate an amendment, whereas now all amendments must be approved by a popular referendum. Stupid democracy.
That Japan’s Constitution has never have been amended because it may never have been given enough real meaning by the courts or anyone else in power to actually need amending is a possibility that nobody in the family is willing to even contemplate, even though this was aptly demonstrated by Prime Minister Abe’s recent success in changing the interpretation of Article 9 to suit his fancy through the much less burdensome expedient of a Cabinet resolution.
By this point the comic has covered all the important defects in the Constitution: It’s old, American and too hard to change. The characters stop just short of blaming the document for any kind of socio-political problem that has happened in the seven decades since it came into force. Of course, that’s because those problems would implicitly be the fault of the LDP, which has ruled the nation for most of the Constitution’s existence. In fact, a general inability to articulate in concrete terms what is wrong with any particular provision of the charter (except Article 9 — which Abe has just declared to have a new meaning anyway) seems to be a major hurdle for the LDP in marketing constitutional change.
Finally, the Honobono family sits on a cold, dark hill awaiting the first sunrise of the new year. Senzo explains that as long as the Constitution remains unchanged, Japan will always be a haisenkoku (loser nation). Moreover, excessive individuality and freedoms have ruined family bonds. With Yuko and Shiro’s partnership having only produced a single child and both the old guys having misplaced their own womenfolk, perhaps he is on to something. (From the standpoint of the comic’s authors, a couple of elderly women probably would have been superfluous since Yuko alone is an adequate source of hysterical incomprehension, and important things like constitutions apparently only require Old Men to explain them.)
Anyway, the sun rises and the story ends with Shota beaming and saying, “Japan is a great country!”
Which it is, of course.
Still, if I had to listen to some old guys who had enjoyed an entire lifetime of peace, prosperity and liberty (all funded by debt they won’t have to repay) start lecturing me or my children about how too much personal freedom has ruined the country and why we need to prepare for war, the urge to tell him to shut his sushi hole might just be overpowering.
Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.