For the late professor Yasuhiro Okudaira, preserving Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution was his lifeblood.
Now constitutional scholars of his ilk are intent on continuing his legacy in the face of the government’s staunch bid to reinterpret the charter.
Miho Aoi, who had planned to study mathematics as an undergraduate at International Christian University in Tokyo, turned her focus to social science after attending a series of lectures by Okudaira in the 1990s.
“Professor Okudaira talked about how people have struggled to achieve the right to freedom of expression and I was fascinated by the story,” said Aoi, now a constitutional law professor at Gakushuin University’s Law School.
Known as a leading scholar in Japan and grass-roots organizer against revising the Constitution, Okudaira was a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. He died of a heart attack on Jan. 26 at his home in Tokyo, aged 85.
“We sometimes read U.S. court precedents with him in a small group, and it was fantastic. His lectures have changed my life,” Aoi said.
Osamu Watanabe, professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University and a longtime colleague of Okudaira’s, is also a strong advocate for upholding the Constitution in what is being described as a watershed moment for democracy in Japan.
Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, new security bills currently before the Upper House are designed to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and expand the scope of activities of the Self-Defense Forces abroad.
In a public address last November, Okudaira criticized the attempt to expand the SDF’s capabilities.
“We’ve had to establish pacifism over the past 70 years since the end of World War II as a universal idea that should prevail around the world,” he said at the time, adding that the constitutional principle was achieved through people’s persistence and should not be taken for granted.
The meeting was hosted by the Article 9 Association, which was founded in 2004 by nine influential figures, including Okudaira and Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, to highlight the significance of maintaining the war-renouncing clause of the Constitution.
Since then, more than 7,000 like-minded groups have sprouted up nationwide in communities and workplaces.
Article 9 stipulates that Japan forever renounce war, noting that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
“We are now facing dangers that will threaten our peaceful lives and freedom given that the government advocates ‘proactive pacifism,’ ” Okudaira said.
Aoi, who herself is now a vocal opponent in magazine articles and lectures of the government’s policy of allowing Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, said she was impressed Okudaira never wavered in his conviction.
She said she learned from him that a constitutional researcher should also take an active role in contemporary problems.
“These must be lousy times if constitutional researchers are kept as busy as we are now,” she said.
Okudaira was a vocal critic on various issues “that are usually passed over unnoticed,” said Watanabe.
He railed against the unconstitutionality of legal restrictions on door-to-door canvassing during election campaigns, while criticizing the prosecution of a publisher for distributing obscene comic books, arguing it was not up to government authorities to judge whether certain material was obscene.
Watanabe became acquainted with Okudaira at the University of Tokyo after starting his academic career at the Institute of Social Science more than 40 years ago.
“Mr. Okudaira also focused on how to protect human rights and liberties, particularly those of minority groups, by using the Constitution as a weapon,” Watanabe said.
He said for Okudaira the Constitution was a “never-ending project” under which people work to carry out its ideals across generations.
As a senior administrator of the association, Watanabe said, “It is our duty to take over the unfinished project from Mr. Okudaira.”
“Conservative groups argue it is unrealistic to demilitarize Japan, but Mr. Okudaira would have responded by questioning the role of an armed Japan in Asia,” he said.
A day before he died, Okudaira gave a lecture in Tokyo in which he reiterated Japan’s postwar stance on pacifism. His wife Seiko said he spoke with her at home later that day about how to achieve peace.
“I did not expect him to pass away so suddenly, but it was good for us to have that talk in the end,” she said of her husband, who was also fond of classical music and motorcycles.
Seiko, who is also involved in activities for the Article 9 Association, said, “I want to meet with Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe and ask him, ‘What kind of life have you lived in postwar Japan?’ “
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