The vulnerability of children is terrifying. Emotionally disturbed parents may abuse them. A sour economy, or warped economic priorities, may expose them to deprivation — child poverty is rampant in Japan, a recent UNICEF survey has shown.
Then there is education. It begins before school. It begins at birth. Infants are sponges, absorbing whatever is around them. If what’s around them is good, good. If not, the damage is done, sometimes irreparably.
Small children by and large accept what their parents and teachers tell them. What defense have they against lies and nonsense? Some, if their immediate experience contradicts it; none otherwise. Parents, teachers, the ministry of education, can teach children anything they want, whatever suits their own or the state’s purposes.
North Korea comes to mind. Few outsiders know what goes on in North Korean classrooms, but the country’s survival depends on a social system the rest of the world regards with horror and loathing being taught in school as though it were paradise. Is there a natural limit to what a small child will accept as truth? It seems not.
Recent Japanese history furnishes its own examples. Prewar and wartime schools taught myths as historical fact — that the Emperor is a divine descendant of the sun goddess, for instance. A good source on what school felt like in those days is the 1997 best-seller “Shonen H (A Boy Called H),” an autobiographical novel of wartime childhood by Kappa Senoh. “H,” a sixth-grader in 1940, is shocked one day to hear his little sister, still in third grade, belting out a song she’d learned at school:
“On to victory we march / Junior citizens of His Majesty! / The red blood of our parents / tells us we must die for him; / the banner of our righteous cause / leads us into the attack . . .”
Or there is “Japan at War: An Oral History,” by Haruko Cook and Theodore F. Cook (1992). Kikuko Miyagi, a wartime student nurse serving on the battlefields of Okinawa, recalls: “I assured Father and Mother I would win the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, 8th class, and be enshrined at Yasukuni. Father . . . said, ‘I didn’t bring you up to the age of 16 to die!’ I thought he was a traitor to say such a thing.”
In May 2012, seven months before his triumphant election as prime minister, Shinzo Abe spoke to an interviewer in terms suggesting nostalgia for those vanished days and that vanished spirit.
“In schools (today),” he said, “there are teachers telling children, ‘Only fools put their lives on the line for their country; just value your own life.’ “
Part of the problem, he seems to have concluded, is a postwar Constitution enshrining peace and human rights. Another is what conservatives call “masochistic history.” Schools teach children that Japan’s wartime conduct was belligerent, misguided, even evil. How can children taught that way grow up feeling pride in their country? In his 2006 book “Utsukushii Kuni e (Towards a Beautiful Country),” Abe wrote, “I was born in this country and I want to live in it with pride.”
The government he now leads seems to be proceeding in earnest with measures to ensure he can. Constitutional change is on the agenda, as are changes to the way history is taught in school. “Masochistic” history must give way to “patriotic” history. The stated objective is to present a more “balanced” view of “disputed” facts. Did the Japanese military really commit the atrocities attributed to it? The Nanking Massacre, for instance, or the mass sexual enslavement of girls and women for the “comfort” of Japanese soldiers? In October the education ministry ordered a rural Okinawa school board to replace a liberal-leaning ninth-grade history textbook with a more nationalist one. The board refused; the clash drags on. Whatever the outcome, the children will learn what they are taught — if truth, truth; if propaganda, propaganda.
Imagine you are a parent whose children are being taught propaganda. What do you do? Teach them the truth and watch their grades slip as they lose interest in school? Or turn a blind eye, knowing their future careers will depend on their grades?
Japan has been at peace now for 68 years. If national glory is measured in terms of citizens’ eagerness to “put their lives on the line for their country,” decidedly Japan has known more glorious days. Is glory good? Maybe there’s something better?
Ayumu Suzuki, 36, is a Mount Fuji guide whom the Asahi Shimbun featured in its New Year’s Day issue. As a high school baseball player he grew up in an ambience of intense, unremitting competition. He decided it wasn’t for him. Climbing Fuji one day some years ago, he came to an astonishing realization: The best views weren’t at the summit but lower down. Later, as a guide, he planned his itinerary around that insight, and takes groups not to the top but to the beauty spots others miss on the way up.
That’s not a bad metaphor for where Japan stands now, to the apparent disgust of its highest elected leader. Sixty-eight years of peace have spared the nation war but not disaster. Some earthquakes and tsunamis wreak warlike damage; a triple nuclear meltdown drew inevitable comparisons to the nuclear bombings that brought an earlier Japan to its knees.
How does the future look to the children of Fukushima, the prefecture whose name for the time being is sadly synonymous with radiation?
Josei Jishin magazine introduces us to (among numerous others) Yuta Sasaki, a third-year junior high school student from the largely evacuated Fukushima town of Minamisoma, 25 km from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear power plant at the heart of the crisis. The Sasakis are in temporary housing. Yuta’s father Shinichi is a fisherman. The family home was right by the sea; the tsunami swallowed it but Shinichi managed to save his boat.
To Yuta, his dad is a hero. Radiation has put him out of business for now, but “definitely,” says Yuta, “I want to be a fisherman in Minamisoma.” How many years it’ll be before that’s possible, if it ever is, is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt in Yuta’s mind that that’s where his future lies.
It’s not patriotism, but whatever it is, maybe that’s what the education ministry should encourage schools to teach. No propaganda required.