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Pushing the U.S. Constitution to the brink

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — On opening day of the 112th session of the U.S. Congress, the members of the House of Representatives recited the U.S. Constitution. The Republican Party, now the majority, instituted the unprecedented step. The tea party instigated it.

The tea party came to the fore soon after Barack Obama became president of the United States. The “tea” in the name of the movement was explained to mean “taxed enough already.” With the obvious reference to the 1773 Boston Tea Party, the participants in the Tax Day rally in Washington, D.C., on April 15, threatened to dump tea bags in one of its parks.

In less than a year, what had appeared to be a fringe expression of discontent with government grew large enough to include a range of identifiable groups of people. “Tea partiers” counted among themselves advocates of opposition to foreign intervention, absolute free trade, and abolishment of the Federal Reserve System; “goldbugs” or believers in the absolute value of gold; evangelicals; and “Atlas Shruggers,” the followers of Ayn Rand who condemned government regulations of any kind as evil.

There were also militiamen. Sarah Palin, a loose cannon since quitting Alaska’s governorship for money, was, and is, one of their inciters. Ditto: the congresswoman from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann.

Yes, the tea partiers also included “originalists” who insist on taking the Constitution strictly as the Founding Fathers or Framers wrote it. Its recitation in the House chamber, on Jan. 6, resulted from the sizable role they played in helping the Republican Party take over in the 2010 election.

Originalism is nothing new. But this time it has made me wonder if it is not comparable to the notion of kokutai, which once so distorted Japanese politics and policy as to take the nation to the brink. For some years now I have been working on a biography of Yukio Mishima, one of the most rational and lucid men of his generation. He flaunted that word toward the end of his life.

Yes, there is a difference: The U.S. Constitution lays down legal principles for the nation, whereas kokutai has never been more than an amorphous idea. Yet many Americans believe their constitution is “a model for the rest of the democratic world,” when in fact it is not, as Yale professor of political science Robert Dahl has pointed out. They also believe the document makes the U.S. special, a dubious proposition.

Those who upheld kokutai insisted that Japan is unique because it is a land “ruled” by the emperors whose lineage has remained unbroken since the age of deities. Kitabatake Chikafusa (1293-1353) first advanced the argument, and he did so when the imperial house was in serious decline. The followers of National Learning (kokugaku) took it up and promoted it toward the end of the Edo Period when shogunate governance got into serious trouble.

Deeply vexed by the orotund argument of kokutai proponents, Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) wrote that the word simply meant the general makeup and milieu of a country or society and no more. The leader of Westernization under the rubric of “civilization and enlightenment” even chose the English word for it: “nationality.” His opinion, which was the same as Mishima’s, was ignored.

It was in the 1930s that fanatics seized the notion of kokutai. They clashed most conspicuously with constitutional scholar Tatsukichi Minobe, who posited that the emperor is “a state organ.” Minobe’s interpretation was based on Austrian legal philosopher Georg Jellinek’s thought, and the Showa Emperor agreed, though necessarily only in private, in talks with his councilors.

The fracas the fanatics kicked up with Minobe propelled the movement to “clarify and manifest kokutai,” eventually forcing the Ministry of Education, in 1937, to compile a catechism, “The True Import of Kokutai.” It began with a flat assertion: “The Great Empire of Japan is eternally ruled by the Emperor whose line is unbroken for thousands of generations and who upholds the divine edict of their original Imperial Ancestor. This is our kokutai that has remained unchanged since time immemorial.”

The need to stay with the fundamentalist idea of kokutai prolonged the war. Confronted with the Allied Powers’ demand for an “unconditional surrender,” the Japanese leaders had to insist on the “preservation of kokutai.”

Many have pointed out that the originalist take on the U.S. Constitution does not hold. In places, it was as unenlightened as the chauvinistic notion of kokutai was mythical. Most infamously, there’s the “three fifths” provision in Article I, Section 2. In apportioning “representatives and direct taxes,” it said, without really saying so, that every five slaves were to be counted as equal to three whites.

More generally, one of the archaic aspects of the U.S. Constitution is the patronage power accorded the president. It certainly is worthy of any of the Third World nations that the United States is eager to democratize.

And, yes, there is the vaunted ideal of democracy.

Japanese visitors to the U.S. in the 1870s were impressed that “even a child three feet tall” spoke of democracy as the greatest virtue of the country. In truth, the Framers’ idea of democracy was close to that of mobocracy. Despite the three words that open the constitution, “We the People,” nothing like democracy is mentioned in the text.

A survey last year found that less than 30 percent of Americans have ever read the constitution from start to end. In a tea party rally last year, John Boehner, now speaker of the House, quoted words from what he called “the preamble” to the constitution. The words were from the Declaration of Independence.

The Framers were a contentious lot. But, aside from that, what do the tea partiers mean by the original Constitution? Only the text ratified in 1789? Do they include “the Bill of Rights” adopted in 1791? And 17 other amendments ratified from 1795 to 1992?

The U.S. Constitution may not push the country to the brink, but the political system it set up is often described as dysfunctional. If the U.S. is “special,” it may be despite the constitution.

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