What qualifications are necessary to write a country’s constitution? Americans would presume to know this better than anyone, since our Constitution more than any other has become a kind of symbol of the nation’s principles. We are all familiar with the Founding Fathers and the compromises they hammered out. At the great meeting of minds called the Constitutional Convention, there were great clashes of interests, for each representative spoke for tens of thousands of citizens. Civics classes are being weeded out these days but educated folks cannot but be aware of the Constitutional Convention.
The Japanese drew on the Americans and other such ideas for over 20 years while drafting the Meiji Constitution. They consulted the greatest minds of Europe and America, who told them how a country’s constitution should reflect its values. Donald Keene writes in Meiji and His World (p. 381):
During the first half of 1883, Itou Hirobumi was still in Europe studying various constitutions in the hopes of finding suitable models for the Japanese constitution. He spent most of his time in Germany and Austria, believing that their constitutions best fitted Japan’s needs. He was especially impressed by two scholars of constitutional law, Rudolf von Gneist and Lorentz von Stein, and invited Stein to accompany him when he returned to Japan to serve as an adviser in both preparing the constitution and establishing an educational policy for Japanese universities.
Stein declined the invitation, citing his advanced age, which made it impossible for him to travel abroad, and also his belief that a country’s system of law must be based on the traditions of that country. He believed that if a people felt it advisable to borrow laws from another country, it must, first of all, trace back to their sources the reasons for the existence of these laws, to consider their history, and then to judge whether or not they were applicable to their own country.
The will of the people: a powerful concept. Indeed, when Americans sponsored the Iraqi constitution in 2005, it was adopted by plebiscite. (Remember the blue fingers?)
But is it necessary for a constitution to represent all national interests? Why not forbid debate and force it through? Would Americans accept such a document? Would it be truly representative? In 2007, the New York Times gave a firm “no”:
Western nations have criticized the process as an undemocratic show devised to produce an undemocratic constitution. It was not clear who would draft the final charter.
“It’s been a sham process,” said a Western diplomat in Yangon, the country’s major city. “It’s becoming increasingly evident that this government is not willing to give an inch.”
But you know, every situation is different. Maybe the will of the people should be actively disregarded. Maybe, in some situation, we might have to pick a few college students from a foreign country to write the laws in less than a week. For example, if the citizens of the country are too immature or evil to be allowed their own constitution, and had long been producing an inferior, “feudal” mockery of Western civilization when they were foolishly allowed to operate as an independent nation. Sure, it’s not perfect, but this might be the only option!
What do you think, New York Times? Yeah, they love that idea! Here’s their tribute to Beate Gordon, one of the college students who died on December 31:
Her work — drafting language that gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day.
“It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said Monday in a telephone interview. “By just writing those things into the Constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?”
Well, we have our answer: a 22-year-old who lived in the country whose constitution they were writing from ages 6 to 16 while attending several international schools there.
Ms. Gordon is described as a “hero in Japan” when in fact very few people in Japan know her name. This is par for the course in New York Times Japan reporting, but maybe they are just being hopeful that more in Japan will remember and honor the American heroes who helped them become the servant state they are today. We can only wonder how many other countries would like the input of 22-year-old American Jews to help them revise their constitutions. Perhaps the State Department should start advertising such services.