TCS Daily


Identity Crisis and Schools

By Jason Miks - June 29, 2006 12:00 AM

The latest Diet session has now concluded in Japan and as expected, some legislation has been passed on to the next session to be deliberated in the fall.

One debate that could prove particularly contentious is that over the Fundamental Law of Education, which was passed in 1947. If changes are made they will be the first to the law since it was drafted by the American occupying forces to stamp out the kind of nationalist indoctrination which contributed to Japanese aggression in the Second World War.

Rolled up into these reforms is the question of patriotism. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has proposed the changes, suggests instilling patriotism in schools by encouraging "an attitude that respects tradition and culture, loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them." Many conservatives in the LDP are sympathetic to these ideas, believing that Japan's education system places too much emphasis on individualism and creativity. Instead they long for what they see as a pre-war focus on tradition, community and patriotic values.

In some respects these arguments about national identity are similar to those being thrashed out the world over, but they take on added significance with Japan because of the still raw memories of its wartime militarism. Many of Japan's neighbours are likely to be casting a wary eye over reforms which they will see as part and parcel of Japan's more assertive diplomacy and moves to rewrite its war renouncing Article 9.

Of course this raises the question of whether patriotism can really be measured, though some schools in Japan certainly seem to think it can. In Saitama prefecture at least 45 local schools were producing report cards for 6th grade students on "love of country", though officials stress that how to evaluate this is being left up to the schools.

However, despite widespread concerns about juvenile crime and a breakdown in classroom discipline, there are many Japanese who question both whether teaching patriotism is a good idea and whether it is even possible. They argue that it is easy to say you are patriotic just to get a few boxes ticked on a report card, but there is no way of knowing whether you really mean it. Some are also concerned that it will create too restrictive a definition of patriotism that will inhibit students from thinking for themselves. Indeed the Asahi Shimbun newspaper argued just this in an editorial, saying "We are concerned that codifying a call for patriotism in the law could lead to imposing on children a uniform way of loving the nation."

Many are also worried that the reform package will ultimately lead to an increase in direct government involvement in schools, with the LDP's early draft allowing for greater political interference. Nationalists like Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara are doubtless licking their lips at this possibility. Over the past three years in Tokyo, there have been 350 cases where teachers have been punished for unpatriotic behaviour at school events, for example for refusing to sing the national anthem. Teachers are now also discouraged from raising their hands to voice opinions in meetings. Some school textbooks have been revised, downplaying some of Japan's past aggression.

Yet conservatives in Japan need to ask themselves what kind of pre-war world they are hoping to return to with these changes. They argue that the Fundamental Law was imposed by the US and that the values contained in it are 'un-Japanese'. Yet Japan's education system has in many respects served the country exceedingly well. It has allowed the country to develop into the world's second biggest economy.

The talk of a breakdown in order baffles many outsiders - despite the concerns of many its citizens Japan remains one of the world's safest countries. The sense of security this creates is not lost on anyone who visits. On trains people openly display their cell phones and MP3 players -- they don't have to hide them away. And many remark on the virtual absence of the underlying aggression, especially at night, which can make using public transport in western capitals such an uncomfortable experience. The service is extraordinary -- from a 50 year old in a traditional izakaya, to a teenager in the local 7-11- staff can't do enough, quickly enough. It has been said in the past that Japan's greatest asset is its people. This is still without a doubt true.

It is a fact of life that people look longingly to the past, and it is a feature of every generation that they see young people and complain that they are unruly or workshy. Some think the answer is to work young people harder at school.

It isn't. The children here are shuttled from school classes to cram class and then to club activities like basketball or kendo. They are exhausted. A friend of mind who teaches in a language school here said that many of the students at her branch look liked they are about to fall asleep in class. Indeed one child did.

Working the kids longer isn't the right way forward, and getting them to be good citizens isn't going to happen by changing school textbooks to gloss over the past. If the government wants young people to be proud citizens then it should provide opportunities for them to do what proud citizens do. Instead of encouraging token gestures and empty words, perhaps schools and parents should be easing some of the incredible pressure on their children to achieve academically and get them involved in their communities through voluntary work. Simply punishing people for not singing the national anthem is more likely to engender resentment and rebellion than pride.

Japan has an enormous amount to be proud of -- indeed, to feel patriotic about. But these things cannot be found in a textbook or measured on a report card. And the LDP is quite mistaken if it thinks they can.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.

Categories:

1 Comment

Too bad this isn't done in the US
When the author describes the objectives of the reformed school agenda one wonders who could object besides the PC crowd and the one worlders. But when has a school district in the US last adhered to such a program.

The Japanese are starting to see the behaviors which are rampant in the US educational system. Little wonder they see the need for reform.

TCS Daily Archives