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Moritomo scandal delivers an education in Japanese politics

by

Staff Writer

“Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education.”

— The Meiji Imperial Rescript on Education

If news were to break that political loudmouths with a record of extreme right-wing views that outsiders consider racist and xenophobic were suddenly found to have been involved in an Osaka land deal gone bad, cynical wags might offer a weary smile at the poetic justice or shrug their shoulders and ask “So what else is new?”

But when the deal involves children, what they are being taught, and features politicians and educators who come across on TV as excessively arrogant, petulant and untrustworthy, we have — despite the best efforts of the ruling parties to put a lid on the stink — an unprecedented scandal that presents Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with his most serious political challenge yet.

Nearly a month has passed since local media revealed Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen, a private educational firm with a nationalist bent, secured a huge — and suspicious — discount on land for a new elementary school. While local journalists long suspected there was something rotten at Moritomo besides garbage buried on the site, a letter from the school’s vice-principal to one child’s parents expressing hatred of Chinese and Koreans, combined with the realization the prime minister’s wife, Akie, was involved, turned a complex local story of alleged fraud into a national scandal involving the highest levels of government, revisionist history and educational theories.

In fact, it was the shocking letter, which led to allegations of hate speech on the part of angry parents and human rights groups, that arguably first turned the Osaka media against Moritomo Gakuen and its heads, Yasunori and Junko Kagoike. Osaka, with its large and vocal Korean and Chinese communities and proud of its historical reputation of good relations with Asia, has traditionally had a low tolerance for such attacks compared to certain other major cities that shall not be named.

How and when the scandal will end is unclear. But Akie, promoted by foreign and Japanese commentators as a “progressive,” has seen her judgment questioned and her reputation sullied, especially after a video of her praising the school surfaced, and despite the fact she resigned as honorary principal when the scandal broke. A long-overdue debate is now beginning as to what, exactly, should be the legal status and the political duties of a prime minister’s spouse.

Then there is Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. As I write this, the pressure on her to resign is immense. An extreme and unapologetic nationalist and staunch Abe loyalist, Inada was a controversial figure well before the Moritomo scandal. Foreign diplomats have described her as polite but seemingly ill-prepared in meetings, yet never failing to spout her personal beliefs in a strident voice. Revelations Inada and her Osaka-based lawyer husband once represented Moritomo Gakuen forced her to apologize for mistaken Diet testimony, creating widespread doubt she should remain in her post.

And finally, the prime minister. On Thursday, Kagoike is expected to explain to the Diet his claim that Abe donated to his school. This story is far from over.

However, what is most disturbing about this whole sordid affair is what angers many people, especially parents, in Osaka: the moral vacuity or embrace on the part of Japan’s leaders of an educational philosophy that encourages children to hate outsiders and bully those who don’t share the views of the nationalists. In an ideal world, Moritomo Gakuen would have been shut down long ago. In the real world, decent Osakans will settle for seeing it replaced with a school that teaches pupils to respect, tolerate and empathize with others and to think for themselves. One real goal of a good education, they understand, should be to raise children to become compassionate citizens of a great country, and of the world, not thuggish, obedient subjects of an arrogant state.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.