Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Humble Proposal Regarding a Possible Clarification of the DPJ's Views on Constitutionalism

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

If the leaders of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) feel misunderstood by the outside world, it is not because they are paranoid. The longstanding direct ties between analysts of Japan and what was, for this last decade, the only game in town, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) means there is distinct lack of an infrastructure of understanding. Tapping into the inner workings of the DPJ mind was until recently the interest only of an esoteric priesthood.

Unfortunately, part of the injuries to DPJ's global image are self-inflicted. The DPJ's leaders had little interest it seems in packaging the party message for the international marketplace. Since the party leaders were focused on winning elections at home, their lack of caring about the international image of the party is comprehensible. Had the party leadership cared about presenting the DPJ as being an alternative to the LDP, rather than the party in the default, take-it-or-leave-it position of being the alternative to the LDP, then the DPJ would certainly have produced a less ungainly and wooden translation of its manifesto.

The first problem with the translation is in the presentation. The English language manifesto is a barren, barely formatted PDF image document, its content uncopyable and unsearchable. The the Japanese version of the DPJ manifesto, is not just a jazzier pdf document, it can be navigated and searched. The use of formatting, bold and different size type also provides a visual architecture for the DPJ's policy statements.

The second problem is the translation itself. To be sure, the translation is not wrong in an ordinary sense. It supplies the numbers, the nouns and the basic concepts without major formal errors. However, the vocabulary and syntax in the translation gives little hint of the verve of the Japanese manifesto, where the language is at once wonderfully succinct and slyly supple.

Take, for example, the DPJ's statement on constitutionalism. For someone wanting to have an overall sense of the DPJ's philosophy of government, finding out what the party's attitude is toward the Constitution of Japan would be pretty important .

Unfortunately, this is not an easy task. First you have to find the statement - all alone on the last page of the official translation, as if it were some kind of postscript.

Then you have to wade through it. I have posted a jpeg image of the statement below. Please click on the image to see an expanded version. Come back when you have finished.

As a translation, the text is not unintelligible. But even when concentrating, is the average reader likely to discern what issues the DPJ is trying to address?

Probably not.

This is blasphemous -- because the original text is

1) a stubborn commitment to a literal interpretation of the Constitution - in defiance of past practices - and

2) a pledge to amend the Constitution should the people find that the current written text no longer acceptable - a promise the DPJ's predecessor never, ever managed to deliver upon even once.

Below is my first attempt at an unwinding of the Edwardian syntax and anachronisms of the official version so that the ideas and issues dear to the DPJ come into greater focus. There is also a conscious attempt to jolt some life into the text even at the cost of completeness...

Toward a Free and Freewheeling People's Debate over the Constitution

"That which those who are sovereign have determined shall play the fundamental role in the limitation of the exercise of state power" -- that is what a constitution is, in modern constitutional thought. It is not a set of moral precepts or duties that the people must fulfill -- nor is it a type of society or certain set of traditions or values that a particular Cabinet may consider important. The Democratic Party of Japan believes that the people support the principles of the Constitution of Japan as written -- namely, "popular sovereignty" "defense of fundamental human rights" and "pacifism"-- and that they do so with conviction. While taking great pains to uphold the Constitution, the DPJ feels nonetheless that it has a responsibility to offer amendments to the sections that are insufficient and revisions for those sections that are in need of revision. It shall do so from the point of view of working "together with the people" and with a sincere commitment to the theory of what a constitution is.

In the autumn of 2005, the DPJ released its "Proposals for the Constitution." Based upon this document, the party hopes to have free and freewheeling debate on the Constitution of Japan with the citizens in a variety of venues. We will continue to actively examine particular sections of the Constitution where a majority of citizens desire a revision -- and where a broad consensus for a revision could be achieved without friction in the Diet.

I have taken a few liberties with the sentence structure and vocabulary. I invite suggestions for improvement.

Nevertheless, I think that the above text does a better job in clarifying the DPJ's commitment to a doctrine of literalism, where the words in the Constitution are potent and mean what an average person of sound mind would understand them to mean.

A radical departure from past practice, in other words.

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