The Future of Japanese Education – Patriotism and Militarism

There was an article in yesterday's New York Times (June 11, 2006) entitled "Japan's Conservatives Push Prewar 'Virtues' In Schools." The article talks about a new public school teacher training center in a middle-class ward of Tokyo run by conservatives, who see modern Japan as a society that has lost its way and wish to return to "prewar" values.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

TOKYO, June 10 — At a new center to train public school teachers here, an instructor warned 22 young Japanese against egotism and selfishness on a recent Sunday morning.

He exhorted them to be considerate of others, summing up what at times sounded like a sermon by saying that "this is the most important thing to teach children."

Later, the principal explained that the center's guiding philosophy was to recapture the "virtues" of prewar Japan — "what may have been lost during the 60 years of Japan's postwar education."

"Japan has become considerably self-centered, meritocratic and egotistic," said the principal, Kenji Tamiya, 72, a former Sony executive. "That's not to say that education alone is to blame. Our social system has many bad aspects. But education is part and parcel of that trend, and I think there's considerable soul-searching now all over Japan."

Indeed, the Japanese government is now moving toward revising the Fundamental Law of Education, which was drafted in 1947 during the American occupation to prevent a revival of prewar nationalism. The revision proposed by the governing Liberal Democratic Party would emphasize patriotism, tradition and morality, and hand greater control over schools to politicians.

The occupation-era law replaced the prewar Imperial Rescript on Education, which had instructed children to sacrifice themselves for the state and the emperor. Japanese conservatives have long argued that the 1947 law overemphasizes individual rights over the public good, and that it has contributed to everything from the erosion of communities to the rise in juvenile crime.

The focus on morality and patriotism is a reaction against educational policies that, since the early 1990's, encouraged creativity and individualism as part of an effort to make Japan more competitive in a global economy that rewards those qualities. Many politicians and parents now blame the focus on individualism, as well as the elimination of Saturday classes, for declining standards, test scores and discipline.

The trend is also in keeping with a larger conservative movement that has tried to reclaim prewar symbols and encourage the use of textbooks that play down Japan's militarist past. More broadly, a revision of the education law is regarded as a precursor to the more delicate task of changing the other legal document of the American occupation, the Peace Constitution, which was meant to keep Japan from repeating its past.

Japan's public schools have long been battlegrounds for bitter culture wars between liberal teachers and conservative politicians and bureaucrats. But in the past decade, the ascendancy of conservatives, coupled with the collapse of the left, has given conservative politicians greater power in reshaping education.

The strong hand of conservative politicians has been felt the most in Tokyo, where the rightist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, and other like-minded politicians have curbed the influence of liberal teachers. Education experts say the proposed revision of the 1947 law would spread the type of changes that have started here to the rest of the nation.

In Tokyo, in the past three years, the school board has punished teachers in 350 cases for being unpatriotic at school events. The teachers refused to sing the national anthem and stand before the national flag, both of which, to many here and abroad, are linked to Japan's former militarism.

In the city's high schools, the principal and teachers used to make school-related decisions together. But the board downgraded teachers to advisers in 1998, effectively leaving all decisions to the principals; two months ago, the board prohibited teachers from raising their hands in meetings to voice their opinions.

The Fundamental Education Law Reform Bill is a big issue across Japan right now. I have even seen posters against the reform bill around Nakatsu. Those who are opposed to the reforms say that the reforms would codify the teaching (or "indoctrination") of patriotism in public schools. Patriotism is still a rather loaded word here in Japan. There is still great controversy in some schools over whether or not the national anthem, Kimi-ga-yo, should be played at school functions like graduation. At all three graduation ceremonies I have been to, nobody sat down during the anthem and a few people even sang along, but I have heard that this is more of a controversy in other parts of the country. Even though nobody sat down during the anthem, it still seemed rather awkward when the anthem was played. It's slow, but mercifulling short, and written in classical Japanese. Many people have a problem with it because it is a kind of ode to the emperor and the imperial system.

Here are the lyrics to Kimi-ga-yo:

君が代は 千代に  八千代に 細石の巌となりて 苔の生すまで

May your reign
Continue for a thousand years,
For eternity,
Until pebbles
Grow into boulders
Covered in moss.

Seems almost like a love song to the emperor, since in classical, Heian period Japanese, "kimi" can mean "you" or "sweetheart."  Also, if read at face value, it's a bit more low-key and less  some otbloodthirsty thanher national anthems – more aristocratic poem and less samurai war-mongering – especially if we compare it to Nazi-era German national anthem's references to "Deutschland über alles in der Welt" or even the Marseillaise:

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons !
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !

Wow! "May unpure blood soak our field's furrows"?!  Pretty bloodthirsty if you ask me.  And according to the movie Casablanca, this is the anthem of the "good guys." And yet they are singing about spilling "unpure blood."  Interesting!  (Don't even get me started on all the current controversies involving the "Star Spangled Banner")

Returning from that little tangent back to the topic of educational reform in Japan; those on the Left argue that the Educational Reform Bill is just another way Conservatives are trying to undermine Article 9 of the Peace Constitution. Just today at my junior high, we had African-American Vietnam War veteran, Alan Nelson come talk to the students about his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam and his subsequent peace activism which began when his then high school aged son returned home from school one day with pamphlets  from a military recruiter instead of materials from potential universities.  Mr. Nelson realized there was something wrong with this picture: where African-American high school students were being targeted by the military instead of directed on the path towards higher education.  Today, Mr. Nelson talks about peace at schools across Japan and the United States, and has even spoken in the United Nations about Japan's Peace Constitution.  He considers Article 9 to be a tremendously powerful tool for peace and a model for other countries.  Here's the text of Article 9 below:

1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.  The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. 

No need for the Japanese translation since the Japanese Constitution was written in English by U.S. Occupation Forces after WWII and then translated into Japanese.  Of course, this article is now under attack.  Even though assigned to only "humanitarian role," Japan's euphemistically named "Self-Defence Forces" have been deployed to Iraq.  The very constitutionality of the existence of the Self-Defence Forces comes from a rather tricky interpretation of the "in order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph" section.  Since the Self-Defence Forces are not technically to wage war, but for self-defence, they were allowed to exist, ironically, under American pressure to respond to the changing demands of the Cold War.  It was also under American pressure that Koizumi deployed the Self-Defence Forces to the peacekeeping mission in Iraq despite heavily critical public opinion on the topic.

However, there is also a growing change in public opinion to change Article 9 and to make a the Self-Defence Forces a real military, as a preemptive response to the potential nuclear threat of North Korea and the growing strength of China. 


Declining Birthrates in Japan: Part 2

After everything I said in the previous post, I think we have to look at another fundamental question:  is a declining population necessarily a bad thing?  In the case of developped countries like Japan, maybe not.  

Afterall, Japan is only the size of Sweden or California in terms of landmass, but it has half the population of the United States.  For the most part, it is an advanced industrial country which means that it's population uses up a lot of natural resources.  Our economic models for development are already not environmentally sound.  Our planet can not bear the burden of more and more of the earth's population living Westernised, industrially developped lifestyles of consumption.  This is an environmental fact.  The earth has limited resources, so it is clearly environmentally irresponsible to tell people to have more babies.  Especially not people in advanced industrialized nations where the per capita consumption of natural resources is high.

That being said, there is no ethical basis in denying the "right" of human economic development to people in countries on the path of economic development.  We cannot simply say: there are not enough resources, so you can't develop economically.  Wasn't the promise of industrial capitalism to deliver us from scarcity with the promise of technology?

But industrial capitalism HAS eliminated scarcity in developped countries.  It has in fact done too well.  Through marketing and the vicious cycle of "trends" and "fashion," scarcity and want are "manufactured" as well.  We must have more, consume more.  Support more industry.  This is industry for for it's own sake and for the sake of capitalism, not for the people's sake.
Yet there are parts of the developping world where industrial development has not yet made the significant inroads to improve the standard of living.  For the less fortunate, the promise of technology has been a betrayal.  Technology, while it has improved the quality of life of millions, is still primarily in the service of capitalists to allow them to make more money.  

Thus the only solution, given limited resources is to have fewer people.  Ethically, we are compelled to spread the wealth, but the only way for that redistribution to be environmentally viable is to have few people around to spread the wealth too.

On the political and cultural front however, an aging population also means a natural tendancy towards conservatism.  When one-third of the population is eldery, they will have huge sway over government budgets and agendas.  This will in turn take money away from education and government programs to help the young.  Young taxpayers will no longer be working for their own future but instead paying to support their elders' pentions.  This could pose a serious handicap on further innovation on all levels, from the arts, to public administration, to technology.  

So I guess I only have more questions and even fewer answers for this difficult topic for Japan and many other developped countries.  So a net population decline is not necessarily bad for the planet, but there will still be serious political and cultural ramifications in societies full of old people.  At the same time, measures should be taken to allow for women and older people to work and for the underemployed to find more meaningful and profitable employment.  Measues will also need to be taken to make sure that technological advances allow for more ecological development and be redistributed to benefit more people rather than just a select few.   A difficult task indeed.

So even if the population of Japan ages and declines and the gross economic output declines, structural and technological changes can be made to increase production efficiency, eco-friendliness and to help maintain the high standard of living. 


Japan’s Declining Birthrate and Aging Population – Commentary and Proposals

Various media have recently reported on the 2005 fertility statistics in Japan. According to the BBC, Japan's fertility rate in 2005 dropped to an average of 1.25 children per woman, down from 1.29 in 2004 and the lowest on record since recordkeeping began in 1947. This makes Japan's birthrate one of the lowest in the world. The average birthrate in developped countries is 1.6 children per woman, while the rate needed to prevent population decline is 2.1.

According to demographers and various politicians, this declining birthrate is will lead to labor shortages, a reduced tax base, and strain on the pension system. The declining birthrate is coupled with an aging society that will further strain the pension system, as the post-War baby boomers reach retirement age in the coming years. Also, Japan has one of the longest life expectancies in the world. But this blessing will also become a curse, when older people, to put it blunty, just won't die; thus becoming economic "liabilities" to the system. According to something I saw on the TV news, the proportion of people over 65 in Japan is already around 20 percent and this percentage is forecasted to reach a peak of about a third of the population in the next 15 years or so.

Returning to the subject of declining birthrates, I quote again from the BBC:

Japan's government last year began a five-year project to lift the rate, building more day-care centres and encouraging men's paternity leave.

But many Japanese women say it is social attitudes, rather than policies, which put them off getting married or having children.

Men are still expected to spend long hours at the office and little time at home, while there is pressure on women to give up work when they have children.

I agree with the sentiment of many Japanese women that 中途半端 (half-arsed) measures such as increasing day care centers or "encouraging" men to take paternity leave is not going to work. Many attitudes are deeply engrained in Japanese working culture. There is plenty of unpaid and unreported overtime, and Japanese workers seldom take all of their legally mandated holiday time. Meanwhile, many misogynistic right-wing political figures point their fingers at women – demanding that they return to their "rightful place": in the kitchen and in stirrups, pushing out babies.

No wonder Japanese women are putting off marriage and childbirth. With the societal demands and expectations placed upon Japanese wives, why would modern, educated women give up their independence by marrying? This is a pretty widespread phenomenon. Even Princess Sayako of the Japanese Imperial Family put off marriage until the age of 36.

Furthermore, many women who do marry are expected to quit their jobs after the wedding and to devote their time to be wives and mothers. This is part of corporate culture and very hard to change through legislation. When women do choose to reenter the work place after marriage and children, oftentimes the only jobs that are available to them are low-paying part-time jobs. So the paranoid prediction of a labor shortage due to low birthrates may not be completely true since many qualified women are simply under-employed or simply choosing not to work.

A Sign of Change

I found this article on about the role of co-ops in contemporary Japan. They are a relatively small but growing movement that is changing the labor market in Japan. Perhaps these kind of labor market changes will allow women to both be mothers and to work outside of their homes.

The article also points out another barrier that is hindering women from becoming full participants in the labor market, the dreaded "Milion Yen Wall":

Japan’s income tax law hits a household’s “secondary income” astonishingly hard above a quite low maximum in the middle-income brackets, a phenomenon infamous as the “hyaku-man-en kabe (百万円壁),” the “Million Yen Wall.”

Government policies designed to bolster “a breadwinner plus housewife” family system reinforce the particular ways Japan’s labor market fails women.
A wife who earns in excess of one million yen loses her dependent status and has to pay her own social security taxes and health insurance. Here, one million yen arbitrarily though not unrealistically equals ten thousand US dollars.
Effectively, the first $10,000 a dependent wife earns is tax exempt; but the next $7000 to $10,000 is a dead loss, all going to taxes of one kind or another. At the low hourly wages typical of jobs available to them, middle-aged women must expect to work 20 to 25 hours per week to earn $10,000 annually.

Taboo Topic: Immigration

There seems to be a deafening silence in public debate on the subject of immigration. Like all other economically developped countries, Japan also has its share of economic migrants, mostly from other parts of Asia and South America who take up mostly lower-paying industrial jobs. However, their numbers in Japan are proportionally far few than other economically developped and post-colonial countries.

One can argue on ethical grounds that Japan, a former colonial and imperialist country that has acheived economic sucess, should allow people from countries that it has formerly colonized and plundered to have a share of that success, as a way of making up for past wrongs. Of course, foreign aid and foreign investments are part of that package, but allowing immigrants from formerly conquered countries to come work and settle in Japan should also be part of the process of historical reconciliation.

Let me pause while some of you laugh out loud. Let's just look at Japan's track record when it comes to dealing with it's imperialist past: First, their is the ongoing textbook controversies about school textbooks that down play Japanese aggression and call the Rape of Nanjin an "incident" ("oops! some Chinese civilians might of tripped and fallen on some Japanese bayonets. Sumimasen deshita") Also, Japanese-Koreans, many who were forcibly brought to Japan as laborers during the colonial period were stripped of their Japanese citizenship after WWII. Many of their descendants continue to live in Japan with the legal status of foreigner, even 3 or 4 generations later.

Furthermore, it has taken the Comfort Women (慰安婦) who were forced into sexual acts with members of the Japanese Imperial Army DECADES, to get any sort of recognition whatsoever. Also, the Yasukuni Shrine registers continue to hold the names of Korean and Taiwanese soldiers who died fighting for the Japanese Imperical Army. Despite the objections and lawsuits filed by those soldiers families, the government and the courts have always supported the Shrine, so the names remain. (OK, I have lots more about the whole Yasukuni Shrine issue, but I'll save that for another rant)

So Japan, why not let in some more people from Asia immigrate to Japan? They will add to your tax base, keep the population vibrant and young, and smooth over some of those thorny PR issues you have with your neighbors.

Another Proposal

Here's another way Japan can keep their population young and vibrant. Let previous JET participants stay and settle in Japan after their 1 to 5 year stints on the programme.

I realize that not all JETs ever have the intention of staying in Japan, but those who want to stay should perhaps be given support of some kind from the government to smooth the transition from JET to other employment in Japan. JET participants would make great candidates for permanent immigration. They are already pre-screened by Japanese consulates and embassies abroad. They all have university degrees and are young, mostly in their 20s and early 30s. Many have good Japanese skills and real experience working and living in Japan for 1-5 years. Many have formed close connections with their communities, many of which are in more rural areas that could use more young people anyway. Many have entered into serious relationships with Japanese nationals.

The Japanese government could offer priority to former JET participants when applying for work or immigration visas for Japan. They could also help them with more information about how to stay in Japan after JET. I am sure that many JET participants have more to offer than just teaching English or translating. JETs bring their youthfulness and creativity to their communities. Many have creative and entrepreneurial spirits that could help brighten up and economically revitalize more marginalized regions of the country.

And with the many JET/Japanese couples being formed, they can help out the gene pool and the baby-making enterprise as well.

NY Times Magazine Article: Juan Goytisolo


I came across this article on the online version of the NY Times magazine the other day. It profiles the Spanish novellist, Juan Goytisolo. I haven’t read any of his works, but reading the article makes me really want to. Goytisolo is an example of what French writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the “intellectuel engagé,” an engaged intellectual. This engage is defined as the duty of a philosopher (or writer, intellectual, etc.) to take part in making history through social and political engagement and activism. Becoming an “intellectuel engagé” is something that I aspire to myself.

(More on the intellectual engagé (en français):

The interview with Goytisolo is just full of amazing soundbytes and quotable quotes from a wise man who is clearly a master of language. Here are some highlights:

“I don’t like ghettos…For me, sexuality is something fluid. I am against all we’s.”

“I am against all fundamentalisms”

“The Muslim world needs to do an autocriticism, to take what’s good from other cultures, prepare the way for social and economic change and not merely recall the extinct glories of Al Andalus.” (Al Andalus is the Arab term for Spain under Moorish rule, which has been evoked as a golden age not just by writers and scholars but also with chilling irredentism by Islamist terror groups.)

“There are too many frontiers in the world. I don’t want to put frontiers in my private life.”

“To have two cultures is better than one. To know three is more important than two.”

“We are educated animals, but animals. We repeat the same atrocities with minor variations, like Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ ” (in reference to the war in Bosnia)

“You should ask for utopia. You need a little utopianism in the rough cynicism of contemporary politics.”


Labor riots in France.
Immigrants marching for their right across America.
Latin America shifting to the Left.

Times are a-changin’. People power is on the rise. What an exciting time to live!

My own life is about to change as well. The return of spring, marked by cherry blossoms and the start of the Japanese school year signals the beginning of the end of my time here. My contract ends at the end of July. I will be leaving my quiet life in a suburban Japanese town and go into the unknown, the uncharted, the unexplored. Although I still have not worked out the details of what I am going to do next, I know that I am ready to engage. I am ready to make a stand for what I believe in and to fight for what is right. For me, what is right is for humanity to live together in peace, while celebrating our diversity and our differences of all kinds.

Lately, my media consumption de choix has been podcasts. I don’t have cable or satellite TV here in Nakatsu, and I have long grown tired of the endless, mind-numbing cooking shows, period dramas, and variety shows on Japanese television. I have practically run out of DVDs of movies and TV shows that I want to rent at the local video/DVD rental shop. Besides, I can listen to podcasts anywhere and have access to worldwide content. I think the medium of podcasting is extremely exciting since it easily and cheaply allows for worldwide distribution of one’s content. It allows people to express themselves and tell the stories that they want to tell without being censored or filters. It also allows for the creation of dialogue and whole communities that transcend borders and timezones.

I will introduce some of the podcasts that I have been listening to in the next few blog entries.