“Freedom.” “Liberty.” Ringing words. Better than any other, they define modern times. They sparked three early-modern revolutions — England’s “Glorious Revolution” (1688), the American Revolution of 1776-83, and the French Revolution beginning around 1789.

Japan then was a “closed country” — had been since 1638, would be until 1854, its citizens barred from leaving and almost all foreigners barred from entering, both on pain of death. While freedom was being born in the West, or being seized from recalcitrant rulers, a very different ideal was maturing in Japan — the ideal of submission. Absolute, total, unquestioning submission.

Article 97 of Japan’s postwar Constitution declares, “The fundamental human rights by this Constitution guaranteed to the people of Japan are fruits of the age-old struggle of man to be free.”

That and similar passages betray the document’s foreign origins. The “struggle of man to be free” does not shine in the Japanese tradition. What does is a diametrically contrary struggle — the struggle of man to be unfree.

It boggles the modern mind, Japanese scarcely less than foreign. Prodigies of obedience, servility, self-surrender — heroic or abject, call them what you will! — characterize Japanese history and literature. They are held up as models of the highest conduct, epitomes of the loftiest aspirations. In his English-language classic “Bushido” (1900), the Christian scholar Inazo Nitobe tells with unconcealed admiration of a samurai lord who, falling into disfavor, fled into rustic exile. His son, still a child, became the object of pursuit by those bent on wiping out the entire clan. A retainer had a son of the same age who bore a striking resemblance to the hunted child. Duty spoke clear — the lower-ranking child must be sacrificed, his head presented to the authorities as proof of mission accomplished. Neither mother nor child hesitated for an instant. The retainer’s child was killed; the authorities were fooled; the young lord lived on; honor was served.

The novelist Kikuchi Kan (1888-1948), in a short story titled “On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao” (1918), relates in fictional form the historical dispossession and banishment, in 1623, of the lord of Echizen (present-day Fukui). Lord Tadanao was (as we would say today) emotionally disturbed. His mad outrages grew scandalous. The authorities at last felt compelled to intervene.

Kan describes the aftermath of a drinking party:

“Lord Tadanao was in an unusually cheerful mood. His favorite page boy, Masuda Kannosuke, ventured to make a remark while replenishing his lord’s great wine cup. ” ‘Why have we not seen your lordship lately in the military drill hall?’ he asked.”

Taking offense for some reason, “Lord Tadanao went white with rage. Seizing a tray for wine cups … he hurled it with the speed of an arrow toward Kannosuke’s face. The violence was unexpected, and Kannosuke blanched; but, rigidly trained as he was in the code of loyalty, he made no attempt to dodge. He took the impact of the tray full on the front of his face and fell prostrate where he was …”

There was only one thing for Kannosuke to do and, that night, he did it: He disemboweled himself.

The submission ethos reaches an apex (or nadir) with junshi, the custom of committing suicide upon the death of one’s lord. Of what value is life to a loyal retainer bereft of his lord? Though formally outlawed in 1663, the practice flourished almost into modern times, its last famous exemplar being Gen. Maresuke Nogi, hero of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. When Emperor Meiji died in 1912, the general and his wife committed suicide in their Tokyo home.

“The relationship between lord and vassal should be like that of lovers,” says the 18th-century “Hagakure,” a compendium of samurai ideals. “Whether (the vassal) is or is not loved by the lord, or may even be unknown to him, this makes not the slightest difference; he is continually grateful for his lord’s benevolence to the very marrow of his bones and weeps tears of gratitude as he devotedly renders him service.” Imagine Nitobe’s samurai, or Kannosuke — or Nogi, for that matter — reading the present-day Constitution. Would they not be puzzled?

“We, the Japanese people … do proclaim that sovereign power resides with the people …” They would hardly recognize this as Japanese thinking. They would be right. It was crafted under the auspices of the postwar U.S.-led Allied Occupation and reflects Western, not traditional Japanese, ideals — a fact that has rankled the ruling Liberal Democratic Party since its founding in 1955.

Last year a resurgent LDP issued a draft plan for revision of the Constitution. Conspicuous among its proposals is the deletion of almost all references to the universality of freedom, equality and human rights. Instead, the draft explains, “Rights are gradually formulated through the history, tradition and culture of each community. Therefore we believe that the provisions concerning human rights should reflect the history, culture and tradition of Japan.”

To lovers of freedom, that is very ominous language. The “history, culture and tradition of Japan” boast peaks that enrich and inspire the world — in literature, painting, theater, sculpture, architecture, landscape gardening, anything you like, but not in freedom, at least not as we understand the word today.

Understood differently, perhaps Japan can make a case for itself. The modern Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki, in “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959), says, “We talk very much these days about all kinds of freedom, political, economic and otherwise, but these freedoms are not at all real … The real freedom is the outcome of enlightenment.”

The LDP draft Constitution does not call for a return to the ethics of the “Hagakure.” But it does unapologetically subordinate “freedoms and rights” to “duties and obligations.” That accords with Japanese tradition — not, however, with what to a modern mind seems best in it.

Michael Hoffman’s latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).

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.