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Editorial: Society should appreciate what Constitution’s Article 23 pledges

  • November 3, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 5:14 p.m.
  • English Press

The Constitution of Japan was promulgated on Nov. 3 exactly 75 years ago, defining the nation’s postwar direction by upholding the principles of sovereignty of the people, fundamental human rights and pacifism.


One of the provisions that was not in the preceding Meiji Constitution is Article 23, which guarantees academic freedom.


This was stipulated out of remorse for the wartime suppression of theories and studies disapproved by the government, as well as of the mobilization of academics for the war effort.


In the same vein, the Constitution also guarantees freedom of thought and conscience as well as freedom of expression and other fundamental rights. 




Tokujiro Kanamori (1886-1959), a state minister and major figure in the implementation of the postwar Constitution, supported Article 23 in his responses to questions in the Imperial Diet and warned against the danger of authorities’ intervention in academia and research.


He even reminded his peers of the extreme policy of the first Qin emperor of China, who was said to have burned books and buried Confucian scholars alive.


The memories of World War II were still vivid in the collective Japanese conscience at the time. We believe that is something we need to remember today.


The film “Eiga Taiyo no Ko” (Gift of Fire), released in Japan this past summer, was about a nuclear bomb development program called “F Kenkyu” (F-Go Project).


The program was commissioned by the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war and undertaken by a team of physicists including Bunsaku Arakatsu (1890-1973), a professor at Kyoto Imperial University (now called Kyoto University).


Generating massive energy by nuclear fission was the theme of cutting-edge research at the time, and the Imperial Japanese Army was also conducting its own program simultaneously.


But the researchers lacked supplies as well as technology, and the F-Go Project team was still developing a centrifuge for uranium enrichment when Japan lost the war. The nation was still a long way from developing a functional nuclear bomb.


The film depicts the researchers’ conflicted thoughts and feelings.


“Our names will go down in the history of physics,” says one. “When I think of my colleagues on the war fronts, I realize we aren’t being of any use,” muses another, while yet another questions themselves, “Are we doing the right thing?”


Winning the war was their goal, but that did not stop them from mulling over the nature of their work, trying to imagine the consequences of nuclear development and thinking ahead to a research system after the war.




Since last year, the attention of many people has been focused on matters of academic freedom and the relationship between politics and academia.


One of the triggers was the novel coronavirus pandemic.


Some trial and error was inevitable in planning infection countermeasures while trying to maintain social and economic activities. But it was the self-serving opportunism of politicians that invited the public’s distrust.


They heeded experts’ advice only if it helped advance their policies but ignored anything they didn’t want to hear.


The job of politicians is to take all social and financial circumstances into consideration to form a comprehensive judgment. Instead, however, they cherry-picked scientists’ advice and blamed them when something went wrong, evading all responsibility.


In the absence of any clear structure of accountability, the lives and health of citizens were imperiled by the government’s irresponsible actions, including arbitrarily closing all schools nationwide, pushing “Go To” campaigns and holding the Olympics under a COVID-19 state of emergency.


And the government last year refused to appoint candidates to the Science Council of Japan in disregard of the latter’s recommendation.


Not only has the government not explained its reason to this day, but it is also flatly rejecting any discussion.


What emerges clearly from this is its intent to censure researchers who stand up to the administration and place the entire academic community–including the Science Council of Japan–under government control and turn it into a “useful” institution.


By trimming funding for universities and other academic institutions, the government has allocated the resultant “surplus” to the Defense Ministry, urging it to participate in “useful” national security research.


And because the Science Council would not cooperate, the government started treating it with hostility, clearly trying to apply pressure by interfering in the council’s membership and organizational matters.


Technology is double-faceted. There are countless examples of military technologies that were originally developed for war and later applied successfully to civilian uses, and vice versa.


National security needs cannot be overlooked, and the importance of military research is understood and supported by members of the general public.


But precisely because this is not a simple issue, people need to be wise enough to try to learn from history.


Akira Masaike, an emeritus professor at Kyoto University who researched and published the achievements of Arakatsu and the F-Go Project team, noted: “Because their purely academic research was being subsidized by the Navy, I believe they were not in a position to refuse to research the possibility of developing nuclear weapons in the final stages of World War II. Researchers today also need to pay the closest attention to the potential applications of their works and where the research funding is coming from.”


His warning could not have been worded better.




Along with the popularization of the expression “choose and focus,” it is becoming a rapidly growing trend to expect learning and research to be “useful.”


To ensure securing the needed funding and research post, it would help to go along with a government-promoted policy and choose a theme that is likely to quickly produce results. Achievements along these lines will improve the standings of the research organs and researchers involved.


At the same time, we obviously can never stress enough the importance of research that improves the human condition by preventing accidents, disasters and illnesses. But even there, researchers must never stop thinking about the nature of their undertakings.


Instead of taking things for granted, they must continue to anticipate the possible consequences and even stand up to authorities when necessary.


Also, they must not forget that if they are after a new discovery or technological innovation that can completely change society, they need the power of imagination or inspiration that goes beyond the scope of their current research.


But that won’t be possible without a solid foundation in basic research that is not meant to produce immediate results. Failing to work diligently in this manner is tantamount to nipping any future success in the bud.


Society will never grow prosperous so long as it fails to correctly understand the purpose of learning and research. We need to truly appreciate what Article 23 of the Constitution provides.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 3

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