In October 2005, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) approved draft proposals whose main thrust is to revise the Preamble and Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution. The new preamble includes “the obligation to support ourselves . . . with love for the country and society to which we belong,” a veiled reference to patriotism, a word that was dropped from an earlier version to appease the opposition.
Since coming to power in September last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made instilling patriotism — in schools as well as through the Constitution — a key feature of his political agenda. The actual procedure for constitutional revision takes time, but the plans are very much alive.
The governing party’s intentions have attracted strong reactions from liberal and neutral circles in Japan and abroad, ranging from mild concern to profound alarm. While Japanese politics show no signs of an imminent swing to the extreme right, and the vast majority of Japanese citizens no doubt would not want to see their country go down the perilous path of narrow-minded nationalism, these developments nevertheless deserve to be critically scrutinized by the international community. Indeed they are because of Japan’s status as one of the world’s major powers. The final decision obviously is with the Japanese people. But airing the issues and widening the debate may help.
The basic question to ask is: Is there anything wrong with the government’s plan to embed patriotism in Japan’s Constitution? I believe there is:
First, in a democratic society, the nation’s constitution is a charter given by the people to its leaders — not the other way round. The French Constitution makes this clear in its Article 2: “Its principle shall be: government of the people, by the people and for the people,” and in Article 3: “National sovereignty shall belong to the people, who shall exercise it through their representatives and by means of referendum.”
The U.S. Constitution is equally explicit on this point. Its preamble states: “We the People of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Constitution of the Netherlands, one of Europe’s oldest democratic nations, does not spell out where national sovereignty resides, but its detailed, business-like provisions leave no doubt on this score: It lists the various rights of its citizens, and the duties of government and Parliament to provide the necessary care and security for the people.
It can be argued that any changes in Japan’s Constitution require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Diet, plus majority support in a national referendum, and that any proposal thus carried will therefore reflect the wish of the people. Yet the patriotism initiative hardly carries any popular credentials. There is no grassroots movement demanding “more patriotism.” On the contrary, there is widespread skepticism about Abe’s agenda. The call for patriotism has sprouted from the brains of a group of rightwing politicians apparently determined to force change.
Second, none of the above-mentioned three constitutions appeal to or call for patriotism by whatever name.
Third, the notion of patriotism is essentially an emotional and personal one, and any reference to it in a constitution is therefore not only inappropriate, but potentially dangerous. As we know only too well from history, fiercely nationalist politicians tend to resort to patriotism to achieve their goals, often turning into dictators and trampling on the legitimate rights and freedoms of their citizens in the process. Even some democratically elected leaders active on the world stage today habitually appeal to patriotism to get their views accepted when they fail to do so by their wisdom and sound reasoning. As Samuel Johnson wrote back in 1775, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
Fourth, patriotism is akin to racism, in that it implicitly places the interests of and respect for the members of its own native community above those of any other. In that sense it is the antithesis of cosmopolitanism. In a patriotic environment, participative politics — one of the key rights of citizens in a democratic society — cannot flourish optimally, and it may eventually be overshadowed by top-down directives and demagogic rabble-rousing that bypass the democratic processes.
Fifth, emphasizing the need (the duty?) to love that “beautiful country Japan” (Abe’s words) will diminish the incentive for young people to think independently and develop a rich personality of their own. Already there are signs that Japan’s competitive advantage in the world is being eroded because of a declining interest among Japanese students to study abroad.
Last, when taken in the context of other planned constitutional revisions, notably in Article 9 (the clause precluding the use of force to settle disputes, etc.), and recurring official attempts to downplay the extent of Japan’s atrocities during its wars in the 1930s and 40s, calls for “more patriotism” naturally arouse suspicion as to the real intentions of those who champion this drive.
There is nothing wrong with a healthy pride in one’s country, its history and arts and accomplishments. Quite the contrary; it is a normal condition. We may assume that most citizens in well-run nations feel good about their country, and will rise to defend it against external threats.
Based on my own experience and research, the Japanese are no exception. After all, affection for one’s native country is as natural as the love for one’s parents. Neither should be or need be taught in school, or enshrined in the national Constitution.
In a recent interview-based article (The Japan Times, May 8) the high-profile former television hanchor and journalist Yoshiko Sakurai staunchly defends the inclusion of patriotism in the Preamble of the Constitution and as a subject to be taught in Japan’s schools. She dismisses fears that Japan is “reeling back into fascism” as irrational. She criticizes the emphasis on individual rights in the present Constitution and apparently is unhappy with the principle that sovereign power resides with the people — a fundamental democratic concept that has been retained in the revised draft-text.
She wants the Emperor to be made head of state, instead of the “symbol of the State” as he is described in both the present Constitution and the LDP’s draft proposals for a revised Constitution.
One can only hope that the political opposition will find the clarity of thought and eloquence to refute the pro-patriotism arguments. For including patriotism in Japan’s Constitution and the school curriculum is not only an anomaly in a democratic nation, it will also prove counterproductive. It may put a ceremonial gloss on the routines of state and create an illusion of regained national pride.
The younger generation may pay it lip service, but it will not win them over. Many of them have already struck out on their own, in search of a more cosmopolitan, self-driven, imaginative life, instead of following the ultimately suffocating toe-the-line, risk-avoiding, love-your-country path that the new patriots want them to follow. To them, the former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s call for a revival of the Bushido spirit will sound like a shout into an empty house.
This is not an either-or proposition. It is essential that the development of a personal identity is balanced by concerns for the welfare of society at large. Parents and schools must cultivate both individual potential and the understanding that democratic rights also convey responsibilities as future citizens.
A December 2006 UNESCO survey revealed that 30 percent of Japanese 15-year-old children “feel lonely,” the highest percentage in the world, three times the next-highest ranking country, Iceland, and 10 times the percentage in the Netherlands. Appealing to patriotism is not going to solve these children’s loneliness. Paying attention to their real needs and own voices will.
Making patriotism a constitutional imperative will not solve any of Japan’s problems, and is not in Japan’s long-term interests. What it will do is raise eyebrows about the future direction of Japan’s democracy. For every journey begins with a single step.
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