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In the week prior to the recent Upper House poll, the Kochi Shimbun asked 100 people at random what the significance of “two-thirds” was in relation to the election. Only 17 answered correctly that it was the minimum portion of Diet lawmakers needed to amend the Constitution. One of the main reasons Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the election was to gain a supermajority for the ruling coalition that would allow it to start the revision process. The fact that most voters didn’t make this connection suggests that the media did not convey this information to the public effectively.

These same voters may know about Abe’s desire to change the war-renoucing Article 9 of the Constitution — the press has been talking about that for years — but it’s likely they don’t know much about other possible changes.

Writing recently for The Big Issue, Montana State University anthropologist Tomomi Yamaguchi says she discussed some of these other changes with members of Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi) who contributed to the draft Constitution the ruling Liberal Democratic Party came up with during its brief spell as the opposition. She highlights certain revisions to Article 24, which presently states that all laws pertaining to family and marriage will “be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity.” Japan Conference says it wants to change the thrust of family law to “protection of the family” (kazoku hogo), with the provision that “members of a family will help one another.”

Some members of the LDP are not happy with the draft Constitution, and Yamaguchi points out that the purpose of most national charters is to define the limits of authority. The purpose of the Japan Conference’s suggestions is to delineate citizens’ responsibilities. The proposed revision to Article 24 says the fundamental unit of society is the family, not the individual. In order to safeguard the integrity of a family, Yamaguchi figures, it may be necessary to rescind existing laws related to divorce, parent-child relationships and domestic violence. Such laws could be deemed “destructive” to the family under a new Constitution.

If Article 24 is revised in such a way, Yamaguchi believes the raising of children and care for elderly relatives will become the legal duty of the family, and will thus give the government an excuse to reduce its own public-welfare responsibilities. Given Japan’s socioeconomic situation, such a change sounds impractical, but not impossible — family responsibility is a powerful force, at least on a psychological level.

Two weeks ago NHK aired a documentary about people who kill their elderly, incapacitated relatives because they can no longer take care of them. The program did not mention the Constitution, but it did show that the caregiving burden on families has become intolerable for many. In the past six years there have been 138 murders or attempted murders of elderly people by their relatives. Right now, more than 5.5 million seniors are being cared for by their families — that’s about 70 percent of all seniors in need of care. NHK surveyed 615 people caring for elderly relations, and 24 percent of the respondents stated that, at one time or another, they had wanted to “kill” the person they are caring for or “die together” with that person.

NHK interviewed several men convicted of these crimes. One was a 71-year-old man who killed his wife. Two years ago, she fell and injured her back. He cared for her all by himself, but after three months of rehabilitation she fell again and became bedridden. He had to wait on her at all times. Her medication made her constipated and depressed. There was only the two of them, and as her condition worsened she begged him to kill her. He did, with the notion that he would kill himself afterward, but he failed.

This man received a suspended sentence, but another interviewee is now serving eight years in prison for murdering his mother, who suffered from dementia. He was asked to take over caregiving from his brother, who could no longer juggle his job and familial responsibilities. The man was unemployed at the time and hadn’t seen his mother in 25 years. He was shocked at her condition. “It was like looking at a monster wearing the mask of my mother,” he said. She required 24-hour attention, and eventually he couldn’t take it any more. He killed her after a violent argument.

In prison, the NHK reporter asked the man why he felt he had to take care of her. Why didn’t he seek outside help? “Because we are family,” he said.

Many families do receive outside assistance through the kaigo hoken (nursing care insurance) system, but often it isn’t enough. Another man interviewed is serving seven years for killing his wife. He told NHK that she was diagnosed with advanced dementia, but because she was otherwise relatively “healthy” she did not qualify for admission to a public nursing home, and he couldn’t afford a private one. He was allowed to bring her to a day care facility three times a week, but the rest of the time he had to be with her constantly. One day she was difficult to control, so he called the facility to see if he could drop her off for a short period, but they were full. That day, he stabbed her in a fit of rage.

Such murders are rare, but it’s easy to understand how watching a loved one deteriorate on a daily basis without relief could cause an overreaction. At one point the NHK narrator commented that humans are ill-suited to take care of sick family members on a continuing basis, but they feel ashamed if they don’t.

If lawmakers decide to designate family responsibility in the Constitution, the public may accept it as natural. As Ikuo Gonoi, a political science professor at Takachiho University, recently told the Asahi Shimbun: “(Japanese) people don’t get angry at the government when their lives are bad. They think it’s their own fault.”

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