The essential argument about how to create a democratic society that is tolerant of difference revolves around an old and simple question: Do stateways make folkways?

In other words, do laws really change the way people of different social inclinations act toward each other?

The deeply held belief in Western democracies is that they most certainly do. The social contract is just that — a contract. Consequently, even those who would rather not abide by the rules, and who would rather not treat certain minorities with respect, are obliged to. Otherwise, they pay the legal penalty.

In Japan, as in the West, stateways have most definitely made folkways . . . up to a point. Article 22 of the Meiji Constitution, broadly based on the Prussian model of the time, and adopted in 1889, guaranteed freedom of movement, while its Article 29 guaranteed freedom of speech, assembly and association. However, those freedoms in any country are only as assured as the government of the day permits — as the decimation of liberties in Japan in the 1930s and early ’40s proved.

The postwar Constitution, adopted in 1947 and inspired by the U.S. Constitution, contains, in Chapter III, what amounts to a Bill of Rights. But sadly and all too often, incidents occur in Japan that demonstrate a striking lack of tolerance and a gross disrespect for freedom on the part of both the people and their institutions. Despite 117 years of constitutional rule, Japanese folkways — particularly as they relate to tolerance of difference — remain conspicuously feudalistic.

A recent and disturbing example of this is the treatment meted out to the 12-year-old son of Shoko Asahara, the founder of the terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo. Asahara has been convicted of perpetrating the heinous sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995. His appeal has failed, and he has been sentenced to hang.

Outrageous discrimination

Asahara and his wife, Tomoko, have six children, and all of them have, over the past decade, experienced outrageous discrimination at the hands of both ordinary “law-abiding” citizens and sundry officials.

Constantly ostracized wherever they have gone, they have been forced to move house at least half a dozen times. Local residents have ousted them from neighborhoods and demonstrated noisily in front of their homes. Schools have rejected their admission. All in all, ordinary Japanese have behaved like white bigots in the Deep South before segregation was outlawed. The “social lynch” is an age-old Japanese trait still very much alive and kicking today.

Now, earlier this month, Asahara’s son was refused entry into the Kasukabe Kyoei Junior High School in Saitama Prefecture, despite him having successfully fulfilled the school’s entrance requirements. The school authorities issued a statement, reported in the Asahi Shimbun on April 4, saying that they feared the reaction from the families of other children attending the school.

“It isn’t us, we wouldn’t mind; it’s others,” they claimed — in effect blaming pupils’ parents. We can wash our hands of this without a guilty conscience; it is they who don’t want the child in the school, was what appeared to underpin their stance.

The folkways of Japan that dictate such a rejection may be summed up in the word murahachibu, meaning ostracization. The Japanese are wont to cut off all contact with people who are deemed morally remiss, and this can often extend to the relatives and friends of people considered “deviants” as well. At worst, this reprehensible vigilante mentality causes the entire community to act as a kind of moral posse, isolating the victims or running them out of town.

Now, Kasukabe Kyoei Junior High School was founded only three years ago. Its buildings are ultramodern, and its stated philosophy is admirable. “We want to produce world leaders in Japan,” the school’s Web site claims. It goes on to affirm an aspiration to create “takai dotokushin (a lofty sense of morality).”

Admirable indeed, but words, thanks to the recent action taken against Asahara’s son, that belie a particularly offensive Japanese trait to condemn a child for the sins of the parent.

Interestingly, the children of Japanese war criminals were not treated with such brutal disdain. Many of them went on, after World War II, to rise to positions of great influence in Japan. Far from being slammed in their face, doors were opened for them. The Japanese are past, and present, masters at ostracizing selectively.

Guilty by descent

Compare this to the fate of children of high-ranking Nazis in Germany. Martin Bormann’s son became a Catholic priest who did good works in Africa, repudiating his father’s legacy as Hitler’s deputy by virtue of them. Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, the savage governor-general of occupied Poland, worked assiduously to expose his father’s crimes. (Hans Frank was hanged in Nuremberg in 1946.)

Where is such redemption in Japan? How will the children of the Asaharas be able to grow up to be decent citizens of this country if they are pronounced guilty by descent?

It has long been proposed that the Japanese tendency to blame the child for the sins of the parent originates in Buddhist thought, and that the progeny of evildoers are stained by the black petals of karma passed down to them. But this “continuum of blame” is actually a perversion of true Buddhism, which allows people, however blighted by blood, to redeem themselves through their own beneficent actions.

Disallowing young people to make their own way in life by blocking their access to education is the hypocrite’s surefire method: Deny forgiveness, prohibit redemption and lord yourself over the victim as loftier-than-thou. This is precisely what the educationalists — if that is what they call themselves — at schools that have rejected the Asahara children are doing. They send the wrong messages to the community, and especially to the children in their care. The word dotokushin does not belong on the Web site of such an institution of learning.

We come back to the question of whether stateways — laws guaranteeing freedom and legal principles of tolerance and equality — eventually reform the behavior of people’s folkways.

In a democracy, such laws and principles are purportedly binding. But their guarantees are only as good as the people’s willingness to see them through.

Japan has had over a century to practice democracy. Asahara’s son is now suing Kasukabe Kyoei Junior High School in the Tokyo District Court. The court’s decision, and the future of these six children, will speak loudly both within and outside Japan of just how deeply down the roots of this country’s democracy go.

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