LONDON – Next Monday marks 800 years since an agreement was made between an English king and his feuding barons that was to have long-term ramifications across the world.
The Magna Carta of June 15, 1215, by which the English barons curtailed the excessive powers of King John, is often regarded as the foundation for the basic freedoms enjoyed by many people across the world today.
The document effectively curbed the king’s arbitrary demands for money and enshrined the principles of equality and basic rights under the law of the land, in particular with regard to property and taxation.
Such principles were later exported and developed around the globe, largely as a result of the growth of the British Empire starting in the late 16th century.
One country far from the Magna Carta’s origin where its influence can be seen is Japan.
Robert Worcester, chairman of the committee organizing events to mark the 800th anniversary in Britain, said the imprint of the Magna Carta can also be seen in Japan’s Constitution, which came into effect in 1947.
It was drafted under U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Allied Occupation following World War II.
With the previous Meiji Constitution, which took effect in 1890, sovereignty lay with the Emperor — not the people — and he had supreme control over the army and navy. Critics described that charter as both authoritarian and ambivalent, with insufficient checks on potential abuses of power.
“Today the Emperor of Japan is a constitutional monarch, as is the queen in Great Britain. This is the great legacy of the MacArthur period in Japan, bringing constitutional democracy to Japan, rather than having the puppet that the Emperor was for the warlords in Japan who led it into the Second World War,” Worcester said.
“After the war, there was very little support for a return to a monarchical period or anything other than democracy,” he said. “Democracy is embedded in Japan as well as it is anywhere else in the world. It is one of the earliest democracies in Asia.”
Arthur Stockwin, an emeritus fellow of Oxford University and former professor of modern Japanese studies, said: “I feel confident there’s an indirect influence between the Magna Carta and the Japanese Constitution.
“The structure of Japanese politics under the Constitution has much in common with that of the United Kingdom, even though in some respects the Japanese system diverged from the British after the end of the (Allied) Occupation in 1952,” he said.
“But given the long-term influence of thinking based on Magna Carta — contrary to the doctrine of the divine right of kings — on British politics down the centuries, it makes sense to assume that that also influenced the design of the Japanese Constitution,” Stockwin said.
“It is also, however, worth mentioning that the power of the emperor between 1868 and 1945 was very restricted, and that stemmed largely or entirely from Japanese political traditions, not from Western ones,” he added.
Despite its influence, few people in Japan seem to have heard of the Magna Carta, according to a recent survey carried out by Worcester’s committee.
The survey of 1,000 adults in Japan found only 23 percent had heard of the Magna Carta, compared to an international average of 39 percent and 79 percent in Britain.
Of the 23 percent in Japan, 49 percent said they did not know what rights are guaranteed under the charter.
On Monday, a host of international dignitaries will meet in the field at Runnymede, about 30 km west of London, where King John sealed the Magna Carta.
Only four copies of the Magna Carta from 1215 remain. They were reunited for the first time at the British Library in February.
The charter is about 4,000 words in Latin and was written on calfskin parchment. Much of the language is arcane and a lot of the charter relates to trading rights. But it established the concept that taxes should only be raised with common consent and guaranteed the freedom of the Church of England, as well as leading to trial by jury.
The Magna Carta led to the establishment, in time, of parliamentary democracy in Britain, which then spread around the world. In more recent times, it has been invoked by campaigners against unlawful detention in the United States and Britain.
Historians have cited its contribution to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, as well as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.