Last Monday evening, 81-year-old Beate Sirota Gordon walked onto the stage of the Japan Bar Association auditorium in Tokyo, took a seat, and for 90 minutes explained in Japanese how she helped write Japan’s post-war Constitution.

Gordon was born in Vienna but came to Japan at the age of 5 with her father, Russian pianist Leo Sirota, who had been invited to teach here. She went to California to attend college when she was only 15, and remained there after the war broke out in 1941. In 1945 she returned to work for the U.S. occupation forces, and when it seemed that the Japanese in charge of making a new Constitution couldn’t come up with one that was substantially different from the previous one, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur convened a secret committee of Americans to help them draft something else. Gordon, then 22, was in charge of women’s issues because she was, as the title of her memoir says, “The Only Woman in the Room.”

During her lecture, she said she grew up watching how Japanese women were accorded second-class citizenship. Her original draft of Article 24, which guarantees gender equality (something the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee), was specific about matters important to women such as divorce and inheritance because “I knew that men would eventually write the Civil Code.”

This pre-emptive strike against a paternalism that Gordon knew was deeply rooted in Japanese society is one of the reasons the powers-that-be in Japan have always wanted to change the Constitution. Since the Occupation ended in 1952, politicians over the years have said that the Constitution was forced on Japan. Gordon says that Japanese were involved in making the document and used as references national charters from all over the world that Gordon herself had collected from libraries in Tokyo. James Miki, who has written a play about the incident, once said Japan’s Constitution was unique in that it contained “the wisdom of history.” “It’s better than the U.S. Constitution,” Gordon told the crowd. “Other countries could benefit from its example.”

It’s often noted that Japan’s Constitution is unusual in that it has lasted 60 years without once being amended, despite the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s long-standing desire to do so. The main reason given is that the part the LDP most wants to change, Article 9, is also the most popular among the citizens since it renounces Japan’s right to wage war. The LDP’s determination to revise the document is always discussed in terms of Article 9, so when the media paid close attention to a report submitted last month by a Lower House research commission about recommended changes, almost all the analysis was focused on defense-related matters.

But the recommendations go deeper. In an article in the Apr. 8 issue of Shukan Kinyobi, Tokyo University Professor Tetsuya Takahashi says the LDP believes that the current Constitution contains a “poor balance” between rights and obligations. He says that some politicians have even come up with a checklist. The Constitution mentions the citizens’ “rights and freedoms” 25 times, while mentioning their ” obligations and responsibilities” only seven times. According to Takahashi, the LDP feels that the Constitution, rather than safeguarding liberty, actually inculcates ” selfishness” (riko shugi).

The committee repeatedly uses the word saimu, or “obligation,” throughout the recommendations. The Japanese people have an obligation to “bear social costs” — in addition to taxes. They have the obligation to “protect and maintain their families” as well as “raise their children,” and “respect their parents.” There is an obligation for citizens to be “unceasing” in their efforts to “defend the country.”

Combined with other recommendations that Japan’s “history, traditions and culture” be somehow incorporated into the Constitution, these obligations are meant to reinforce Japanese identity, an idea that appeals to many young people, who apparently feel cut off from society. In last week’s issue of Aera was a report on how Japanese youth mostly support the revision. Thirty-year-old writer Karin Amemiya says she became a nationalist because “the idea that the kokka (literally, nation-family) needs me” appealed to her. It is basically this shift in attitude away from the baby boomer ideal of individualism that has prompted the LDP to revise the Constitution at this point in time.

At issue seems to be the real purpose of a national charter. In drafting Article 24, Gordon used her experience growing up in Japan, and though her proposal was eventually watered down, she believes it has helped Japanese women achieve equality and greater freedom. But many items in the Civil Code — for example, those having to do with children born out of wedlock — violate the spirit, if not the letter of the Constitution. And unlike judges in many other democracies, Japanese judges have demonstrated a profound reluctance to challenge laws that are at odds with rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Whether or not Japan’s charter is the best in the world , it is only as effective as its power to inspire politicians and citizens alike. According to Takahashi, the LDP tacitly believes that the current Article 24 “doesn’t suit the Japanese character,” and Gordon herself did not speak publicly about her role in the making of Japan’s Constitution until 1991 because the LDP would have used the fact that a 22-year-old woman helped write it as ammunition against it.

“I was a shiroto,” joked Gordon, making a pun out of her maiden name. “Shiroto” means “amateur,” but it’s important to remember that the original French meaning of ” amateur” is “someone who does something out of love.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.