Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Defining "Human Rights" in Japan

The Japan Times (15 July 2008) features a piece by Doshisha Law School professor Colin P.A. Jones discussing a 4 June ruling by the Japanese Supreme Court (最高裁判所) on that country's Nationality Laws. In that case, the court expanded the rights of the children of Japanese fathers and non-Japanese mothers to claim Japanese citizenship. (I am unable to find a description of the case on the court's web pages, so what follows is based only on Professor Jones' piece in the Japan Times.)

Beyond the immediate substance of the court case, Professor Jones dissects a notion of 人権 jinken "human rights" that he says is apparent in the majority opinion, the dissenting opinions, and concurring opinions. According to Professor Jones' reading, "[One] of the things that all of the justices seemed to agree on was this: Japanese citizenship has great significance from the standpoint of receiving protection of fundamental human rights in Japan." This seems to suggest that human rights (人権) are granted to Japanese citizens, and not - as the name would seem to suggest - to all human beings (人).

Jones contrasts the Japanese view of human rights, in which the state mediates citizens' claims against one another, with the Anglo-American view, in which human rights are seen as limiting the power of the state over individuals.

The piece is an interesting exploration of how history and culture can affect the relationship among apparently similar ideas. Although many dictionaries translate jinken as "human rights", the two notions are far from identical within their respective legal and historical settings. This might also make a useful point from which to explore the "universality" of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year.

[UPDATE 11/5/2008
The Japan Times notes today that the government proposed yesterday to revise Japan's Nationality Law in order to meet the Supreme Court's June 4 ruling. I note that the current Japan Times article says, "The top court declared [the previous Nationality Law] a violation of equal rights." That is, a violation equal rights, not of human rights.

On the other hand, an English translation of the Supreme Court's decision is now available. The translated decision states in part, "Japanese nationality is the qualification for being a member of the State of Japan, and it is also an important legal status that means a lot to people in order to enjoy the guarantee of fundamental human rights, obtain public positions or receive public benefits in Japan" (emphasis added).]

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3 Comments:

Blogger Why Specialize? said...

One possibly salient issue could be that the 人 character is not equivalent to "human," with implied universality, but to "person" or "people." It's used often to refer to exclusive groups; the coloquial term for "Japanese," for example, is 日本人, a "person of Japan." So a Japanese observer not viewing jinken as a gloss for an imported concept of human rights could make an intuitive reading of jinken as "people's rights," or "the general rights of specific people."

Or the ruling could also reflect an opinion that while human rights apply to the whole of humanity, Japan is only responsible for/capable of protecting the rights of those people who have Japanese citizenship.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Chad Nilep said...

It's probably a mistake to argue about political philosophy on the basis of orthography. Nonetheless, I'm rising to the bait.

It may be the case (though I haven't checked this empirically) that the morpheme -jin 人 occurs most commonly in words like 日本人 "Japanese person".

At the same time, however, -jin occurs in words such as 人生 jinsei "(human) life" or 人類 jinrui "mankind". The orthographic character also occurs in words such as 人間 ningen "human being" or 人情 ninjou "human nature". These do seem to imply universality.

Though of course you are right, 人 is not truly equivalent to human, either as a simple written word or as an ethical concept.

9:41 AM  
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