Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is cranking out policies to strengthen the political grip on education, turning the postwar notion on its head that instruction of the nation’s young people should be free of political influence.
During his first stint as prime minister in 2006, Abe revised the Fundamental Law of Education, which was brought into force during the U.S. Occupation and was aimed at “democratizing” the educational system based on a report by the U.S. educational mission.
The revised law maintained that nurturing morality and teaching students to love Japan is one of the purposes of education, something that the Occupation authorities wanted to deny under the belief that excessive patriotism fueled Japan’s wars of aggression.
Since taking office in December 2012 for the second time, he has been aiming to add a required course on ethics that would seek to increase students’ sense of patriotism.
Abe also revised the education guideline last month, calling on schools to clearly teach for the first time that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory.
In its latest move, the Abe administration is slated to submit a bill to the Diet early in March to give local government heads more authority over education, with the intention of reforming the postwar board of education system, which was designed to maintain political neutrality on schools and minimize political intervention and influence.
The outline of the reform bill approved by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in February envisions integrating the positions of head of the board of education and superintendent into a new superintendent position in charge of education administration. It would also give mayors the authority to appoint and remove this superintendent, weakening the position’s independence.
The outline says that each mayor would form a council to compile an educational program guideline, which could open the door for mayors to influence the selection of textbooks and other school matters. Under the LDP’s proposal, mayors would also be newly given the power to issue administrative orders to boards of education over “urgent” issues.
Some experts are concerned these policies will harm the neutrality, stability and consistency of the postwar education system.
“By giving more authority to heads of local governments, policies could change every time the local residents elect different mayors who can influence the educational system at their disposal,” said Manabu Sato, a professor at Gakushuin University specializing in education administration.
Abe originally intended to give mayors full authority and responsibility over education by abolishing the board of education system, which in some communities has been criticized for not being able to improve schools or take appropriate measures in a timely manner.
Yusuke Murakami, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo who specializes in education administration, points out that Abe wants to use education to create momentum for revising the war-renouncing Constitution, one of his most cherished goals.
“For Abe, the education system represents the postwar system imposed on Japan by the U.S.,” Murakami said. “Abe is ideologically allergic to that.”
The board system was introduced in 1948 to emulate the U.S. system under the guidance of the U.S. educational mission.
The mission advised that local-level elections should be held to create the boards of education to democratize the process at the local level. Yet the elections were abolished in 1956 because they were being used to advance political agendas during the intense ideological battles of the Cold War.
The current board system embodies lay control and professional autonomy. Mayors appoint five or six members to the board who are not necessarily experts on education, and the board members choose a head and a superintendent from among themselves.
The board is in charge of numerous policies, such as selecting textbooks and appointing personnel at schools, while the superintendent, who is usually an expert on education or government administration, is in charge of the board secretariat, which administrates the everyday business of schools based on policies and measures designed by the board.
However, who has the ultimate responsibility and authority to make decisions in some circumstances has been left unclear. For example, the education ministry is in charge of creating program guidelines, while the authority to implement the budget belongs to mayors and governors, unlike in the U.S., where school districts can impose taxes to fund education. While prefectural boards of education are in charge of personnel issues, municipal boards are in charge of selecting textbooks and starting and shuttering schools.
Criticism culminated when bullying led to the suicide of a junior high school student in Otsu, Mie Prefecture, in 2011. The school and the local board were censured for not taking appropriate measures and failing to identify the bullying case as well as not being able to get support to the student before it was too late.
Even though the purpose of Abe’s reform is to make it clear who has what specific responsibilities when fast action is needed, like in the Otsu tragedy, some experts say it will fail to solve this problem.
Contrary to Abe’s intention, the ruling camp stopped short of abolishing the board of education system and giving unchecked authority and responsibility to the heads of local governments, as was originally suggested. Criticism emerged within the ruling bloc that it would erode the political neutrality of education.
Yet Toru Kameda, senior research fellow at PHP Institute Inc., said political neutrality can be maintained by introducing a system in which the community and parents check if the mayor breaches political neutrality or if children are getting an appropriate education.
“The reform was compiled just for the sake of making reform, and the reform might not bring as many changes as was envisioned,” said Kameda, who used to work in the education ministry. “It would be hard for local heads to compile a drastic program with his council as they still have to follow the program guideline set by the education ministry.”
Experts, educators and politicians are divided over whether or how much authority the head of a local government should have. According to 2013 data compiled by the University of Tokyo’s Murakami, some 60 percent of 672 mayors he polled were opposed to abolishing the current board system. More than 30 percent of the respondents said no changes are necessary, while almost 60 percent preferred maintaining the current system with a few modifications.
“There should always be improvements made to the education system, but the proposed educational reform is not as critical as the Abe administration portrays,” Kameda said. “Yet education can be a strong political tool, and Abe is jeopardizing the system needlessly.”