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. 

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