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Japan had a pacifist “constitution” long before 1947, when the current one went into effect. It was issued in the year 604, its author so esteemed, in his own time and since, as to merit the posthumous name Shotoku Taishi (Crown Prince Sage-Virtue). His lifetime (574-622) spanned an early phase of Japan’s astonishing leap from prehistory to history, barbarism to civilization, inchoate nature worship to the Buddhism and Confucianism it was just starting to absorb under the generously proffered, gratefully accepted tutelage of its vast and mighty neighbor, civilization itself to dazzled Japanese eyes — China.

Shotoku himself was a great student and sponsor of Chinese learning. Article 1 of his 17-article constitution is Confucian to the core: “Harmony should be valued and quarrels avoided. … When superiors are in harmony with each other and inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevails.”

Two decades after Shotoku’s death there occurred the famous Taika Reform. Beginning in 645, it transformed Japan — in theory — from a hodgepodge of independent clans into a unified nation, China being the model. “Under the heavens there is no land that is not the emperor’s,” reads a recurring phrase in contemporary annals. Clan leaders, no longer rulers, became bureaucrats, showered with titles and court ranks but stripped of independent power. From now on what authority they wielded was — again, theoretically — exercised in the Emperor’s name, not their own. Article 3 of Shotoku’s constitution provides the framework: “Do not fail to obey the commands of your Sovereign. He is like Heaven, which is above the Earth, and the vassal is like the Earth, which bears up Heaven. When Heaven and Earth are properly in place, the four seasons follow their course and all is well in Nature.”

When all is well in Nature, all is well in government, and peace prevails — so Confucius had taught, and so Japan was now learning. And peace did prevail — for 500 years.

All this is worth contemplating as Japan today moves toward writing the pacifism out of its current Constitution. The government leading the drive is not against peace; on the contrary, it assures us, it wants to defend peace, which disarmed pacifism, it says, is impotent to do. It’s an ironic paradox — not, however, a nonsensical one. History and politics are full of ironies.

Shotoku’s constitution is prelude to Japan’s longest peace. It lasted, almost (not quite) unbroken, through the great cultural flowerings of the Nara Period (710-794) and the Heian Period (794-1185). Then the soldiers took over, and for four centuries Japan was convulsed in war — with itself, for there were no external enemies.

Sad, tragic. Was it avoidable? Could Japan, an archipelago defended by stormy seas and geographic remoteness, having once gone pacifist, have remained pacifist? Or was it doomed to fall sooner or later, like almost every other nation, into the cauldron of war?

The short answer is: yes, it was doomed. From day one the Taika system was unworkable. It was too Chinese for Japan. China was big, Japan small; China flat, Japan mountainous; China advanced, Japan still backward; China (more or less) egalitarian, Japan jealously aristocratic and sharply hierarchical.

“There is no land which is not the emperor’s” — well and good; so it was in China; how could it fail in Japan? It could because of the differences listed above. Japan’s mountains blocked communication and entrenched fiefdoms. Roads were few and poor. Taxation, to a people not used to it, is odious. No central government can function without it, no untamed population will pay it willingly. Behind a veil of high culture and peace, an elaborate system of government slowly crumbled, finally breaking down altogether, the restless warriors — samurai — waiting in the wings to fill the power vacuum.

Heian Period literature furnishes some marvelous slapstick parodies of samurai buffoons. To the elegant, effeminate aristocrats who for all those peaceful centuries had everything their own way, warriors, when noticed at all, were strutting clowns, objects of mockery. In the 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji,” a Kyushu warrior blunders out of his mountain fastness in quest of an exiled court lady of high rank. To prove his worth he tries inditing a poem. What a fiasco! He retreats in disgrace, muttering, “You may look down on us country people, but what’s so great about city people?”

The Taika Reform made all land taxable, but what good are decrees that cannot be enforced? What tax revenue accrues from tax-evading taxpayers? None. The Panama Papers leak has thrust the term “tax haven” into the Japanese vocabulary. Heian Japan was one vast tax haven.

The first beneficiaries were the great temples and shrines, whose extensive landholdings the newly centralized government exempted from tax lest the monks slacken their prayers against evil spirits threatening the nation. Then as now, riches begot riches. Nobles began “commending” their own estates to temples. Ownership officially transferred, the nobles continued to enjoy their former cultivation rights — tax free. Commendation, sub-commendation, sub-sub-commendation — within a generation the system grew so cumbersome that no one understood it, let alone succeeded in governing it.

The great warrior families claimed Imperial descent, their founders’ Imperial younger sons too numerous to fit into the tight little court coterie. For centuries the great warrior clans bided their time, taking sides with this court faction against that, this temple against that — for though Japan knew nothing like the religious bigotry and strife that shaped so much Western history, its priests were militant enough in defense of their lands and tax freedom.

Pre-eminent among the samurai clans were the Taira and the Minamoto, offspring of different Imperial branches and, during a 12th-century Imperial succession dispute, supporters of rival pretenders to the throne. Civilian government, rotten to its hollow core, toppled at last. A preliminary defeat of Minamoto by Taira was reversed in renewed fighting 30 years later; 1185 marks the turning point. Japan’s long peace was over. The “way of the warrior” began.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is currently on sale.

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