If you’ve read the news lately, you may have heard there’s a political scandal simmering over the operators of Tsukamoto Yochien, a kindergarten in Osaka whose website advocates 愛国心と誇りを育て (aikokushin to hokori o sodate, nurturing a sense of patriotism and pride). Its young pupils are obliged to commit to memory the long-defunct 教育勅語 (Kyōiku Chokugo, Imperial Rescript on Education), issued in October 1890 and nullified in June 1948. This has raised accusations from various quarters of attempts to revive the prewar education system.
I learned about the rescript from “Japanese in Action,” in which author Jack Seward related an anecdote from the late 1940s. It seems the manager at the ryokan (Japanese inn) where Seward was staying was unable to get it through his head that Seward could actually converse in Japanese, and Seward devised a ploy to convince him.
“Knowing when the manager would come to take our order for dinner,” he wrote, “I had one of the maids bring some ice to my room. … I pretended to be writing in Japanese (and) while she was mixing a drink for me, I asked her, 精華の「華」はどうやって書きますか? (Seika no ka wa dō yatte kakimasu ka?, “How do you write the ‘ka’ in ‘seika’?”)
The maid answered どのせいかですか (Dono seika desu ka? “Which seika do you mean?”)
「此れ我が国体の精華」の精華 (“Kore waga kokutai no seika” no seika, “The seika in ‘This is the glory of the fundamental character of our country’ “), Seward replied.
When the flustered maid confessed she was unfamiliar with the term, Seward motioned her to sit beside him and began writing out the rescript, which, at that time, “was as familiar to pre-1945 school children in Japan as the Pledge of Allegiance is to Americans.”
“At that moment the manager bowed his way into the room and … inquired of the maid what their foreign guest was doing. With sparkling eyes, the maid excitedly told him.”
As Seward described what happened next, “He looked at her in utter disbelief, then scooted across the tatami to regard what I had written. There was an audible, sharp intake of breath — and then he backed off, bowed deeply and said directly to me, どうも失礼いたしました。お見逸れしました (Dōmo shitsurei itashimashita. O-misore shimashita.; “I have been very rude, I failed to recognize your ability.”).
“After that,” wrote Seward, “we had no more difficulty.”
Oh wow, I thought, here’s my chance to have some fun by astounding Japanese with my grasp of an esoteric document. I found a copy of the rescript in Oreste Vaccari’s “Complete Course of Japanese Conversation-Grammar,” which was first published in 1937, and I set out to 暗記する (anki suru, memorize it). This was around 1972.
Whenever I found an opportunity to flaunt my erudition to a captive audience — usually somebody on a neighboring bar stool or seated beside me on a trans-Pacific flight — their typical reaction was to give a 苦笑い (niga-warai, pained smile) and look at me like I was some kind of goofball.
That said, if you’d like to learn the rescript as a test of your ability to memorize Japanese, it’s only 315 characters, or less than a single A4 page in length. But you’re likely to find the archaic court language almost incomprehensible, and it’s easy to see why people regard it as an anachronism.
To read it in the original you need to be able to recognize kanji and katakana that were in use before 1945. For example, it begins 朕惟フニ（chin omou ni), which in modern Japanese would be 私は思う (watakushi wa omou, I think).
And there’s lots of archaic kanji. For example, 国 (kuni, country) is written as 國 and 実に (jitsu ni, truly) as 實ニ. Even more confusing, what appear to be the same words are assigned different kanji, so that その (sono, that) is written with several different characters: （斯ノ, 其ノ, and 厥ノ) and これ (kore, this) is written both as 此れ and 之.
In a recent editorial, the China Daily denounced the reintroduction of the rescript because the document is “known for preaching the core tenets of a militarist education.” But does the rescript really deserve such a bad reputation?
Essentially, Emperor Meiji uses rational persuasion. The contents are a paean to his people to study hard and be good citizens, based on the traditional Confucianist model. It neither touches on foreign threats nor espouses jingoistic sentiments. By adhering to our honored traditions, he wrote, we will not err. It concludes with the words 拳々服膺して (kenken fukuyo shite, bear these in mind) 咸其の徳を一にせんことを庶幾う (mina sono toku o itsu ni sen koto o koinegau, it is our earnest hope everyone will practice these virtues). That hardly comes across as a command issued by a despot.
True, the rescript eventually became one of the pillars of a repressive educational system, but that is to the discredit of those who came later. In any event, the majority view concerning attempts to revive it appears to be that it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie — or as they say in Japanese, it’s a snake in the bush (やぶ蛇だ, yabuhebi da) — best left alone.