- “Being” and “Doing” (1958)
I apologize if the title I have chosen sounds a little like a question from a test on English grammar. However, rather than starting out with a general explanation of the meaning of my title, with your permission I would like to take a different approach, gradually explicating the theme of my talk today by presenting various concrete examples.
Those Who Fall Asleep Over Their Rights
Back when I was a student, I attended a lecture by Professor Suehiro Gentarō on “prescription” in the civil code, and I recall him explaining the provision as follows. If a corrupt borrower takes advantage of his lender’s failure to demand repayment within a set period of time and shamelessly pockets the money, he benefits, while the timid, good-natured lender ultimately loses his claim to that money. This outcome struck me as terribly harsh and unfair when I first heard it, but underlying this legal provision is the assumption that those who fall asleep over their rights and do nothing over time to assert or protect their claims do not consider the civil code worth upholding. While I ultimately came to see the reasoning that underpins the provision as reasonable, it was the phrase “those who fall asleep over their rights” that left a strangely powerful, lasting impression. If a person does not assert his or her rights before the statute of limitations lapses,1 if a person is simply content with being the creditor and takes no action to ensure repayment, then, according to the logic behind the legal practice of prescription, that creditor will ultimately lose his or her claim. When I think about that logic now, I am struck by the extremely important principle that it implies–a principle that extends well beyond a single provision in the civil code.
To explain what I mean, let us turn to Article 12 of the Japanese Constitution, where the following phrase appears: “The freedom and rights secured by this Constitution must be preserved by the constant efforts of the People.” This statement not only [End Page 152] correlates with the declaration in Article 97 that fundamental human rights are “the result of mankind’s long-standing efforts to acquire freedom,” but also projects, as it were, the historical process of acquiring freedom far into the future. It is neither unreasonable nor difficult to read into this provision a principle that, to a remarkable degree, has much in common with the logic behind the provision of prescription mentioned above.
A slightly different inflection of the reading of this phrase gives this warning: “The People are now sovereign, but if the People become satisfied with simply being sovereign and neglect to exercise their rights, then one morning they will wake up to find that they have lost their sovereignty.” This interpretation is not an overstatement, nor is it empty sermonizing. It is rather the historical lesson taught by the blood-soaked process of democratization in Western Europe over the last century–from the coup d’etat of Napoleon III to Hitler’s seizure of power.
An American sociologist has expressed the same essential idea in this way: “It is easy to praise freedom as a blessing. It is a lot harder to defend it. And it is harder still for citizens to exercise their freedom daily.” We assert over and over that our society is free, but even as we continually sing the praises of freedom as an idea, the true essence of freedom will be quickly hollowed out if we do nothing to maintain it. Freedom is not just there, existing like some ornament. Only by actually exercising it can it be protected. To put the matter another way, freedom is only possible if we strive every day to make ourselves free. In that sense, the concepts of freedom and rights in modern society may be said to be extremely burdensome propositions to those who somehow prefer the inertia of living, or to people who think it is all right to leave decisions to others so long as they can get through their daily routine safely, or to those who are...