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Essay and Opinion


Respecting Individuals

January 21, 2010

Noriho URABE (Adviser , Japan Institute of Constitutional Law)

The 17th of this January marks the 15th anniversary of the Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (Kobe Quake). The 19th is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the present US-Japan Security Treaty. Commemorating those two events, I would like to share with you my observations about the meaning of what the Article 13 of the Constitution of Japan provides as its key principle, "All of the people shall be respected as individuals."
One year after the quake, I wrote as follows in April 1996 issue of monthly "Hogaku (study of law) Seminar." The numbers and other details are as originally written in early 1996, not updated since then.

6308. The number shows the deaths caused by Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake on January 17, last year. This number may remind some people of the scale of the damage. However, the number is not the most important factor. In other words, we must not say that it was serious because the number of casualties was big. The number 6308 does not mean the seriousness. Each of the deaths means something grave. (Note: partly abbreviated.)
"All of the people shall be respected as individuals." says our Constitution's Article 13. This principle, "individuals are respected," is one of very basic factors of the idea of human rights. "Individuals' dignity" can be discussed from various angles by taking philosophical or ideological notions into consideration. However, in any case, human dignity principle means that each person is respected. If we strictly uphold that idea, we would never be allowed to simply state the number of casualties. I was annoyed by the fact that people are accustomed to considering the others collectively in number, in today's society under the constitution which refers to human dignity as its basis. I was upset that I had had little hesitation in doing so. It is easy to theorize human dignity. In reality, our society has not gotten used to respecting each person. The earthquake revealed countless cases of actual neglects of human dignity in different places in different ways.

In the above essay, I cited examples of the measures taken after the quake in which "human dignity" was ignored and the idea that "each person should be respected" was forgotten. Those who are interested should refer to the monthly, as I am not quoting the analysis which is too long. My point in that essay was that such disasters might not be prevented if we remained ignorant of the importance of each individual. Since I wrote that essay, I have tried to develop my theory based on the point of view of the importance of individuals, because I renewed my conviction that "respecting individuals" always needs to be the foundation of discussions about constitution.
Military and security theories pay the least attention to individuals' rights. In Asahi Shimbun's featured article about the 50 years of Japan-US Security Treaty, on the morning of January 19 this year, Yukio Okamoto, a critic of foreign policy, wrote, "We must ask ourselves if Japanese nation can maintain itself after ten Self-Defense members die. While the other nations can accept their soldiers' deaths, Japan is a peculiar nation which is unable to take risks." Regrettably, this is not a peculiar opinion of Mr. Okamoto alone, but it is a quite normal factor of war and military logic. Military specialists normally regard that deaths are indispensable, and call an operation success if the toll is only a dozen or two. Mr. Okamoto may want to teach us such military logic and to portray Japan as a queer and irrational nation, as he anticipates that the public would illogically cry out loud for withdrawal after a dozen of deaths among SDF troops fighting in the enemy's territory.
Do we need to accept such a military logic as normal? When he indifferently writes "ten SDF members die," doesn't he see that all those ten people are important and irreplaceable? Ten people's deaths is something different from ten robots' deaths. That point is completely forgotten in what is regarded normal in wars and military. We should remain rational enough to see idiosyncrasy in their "normal" standard that fails to respect a person as a human.
Let's turn to ourselves and see how we lose our reason and adapt to such a folly when we think about those who have nothing to do with us, who are not close enough. I was able to see that each and every death is more serious than the number of casualties, because I was physically shaken in that quake. We should learn the importance of making efforts to see things from the point of view of the person concerned. It may not be easy to be empathetic enough. We are sometimes misunderstanding others when we are confident that we understand them. That is one of the reasons why it is difficult to observe the principle of respecting individuals. Therefore, we must keep it in mind and keep trying. We might see the death toll rise without control, if we forgot about human dignity and accepted more or less casualties as normal and unavoidable.