Education ministry’s heavy hand

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura on March 14 invoked a provision of the Local Autonomy Law to directly demand that the town of Taketomi, Okinawa Prefecture, change its earlier decision not to use a civics textbook for junior high schools chosen by a school textbook selection council for the Yaeyama Islands area, where the town is located.

Whatever reasons the education ministry may cite for its latest action, it is clear that the Abe administration wants to have the town use a conservative textbook chosen by the council. This is the first time that the central government has invoked the law to make a direct demand to a municipality calling for a change in its administrative decision.

The ministry says that the town’s decision runs counter to the law on the free distribution of public school textbooks, which states that the same school textbooks should be adopted by municipalities within a defined textbook selection zone. But the Taketomi board of education made the decision to use a different, nonconservative textbook on the strength of the law on local education administration, which stipulates that the power to select school textbooks lies with each board of education. As such, it did nothing wrong. Because there is no confusion in the education scene in the town, the ministry’s move only constitutes interference in the autonomy of the town and townspeople. The timing of the education ministry’s demand that the town change its decision on the textbook selection is likely to cause problems for the town’s schools. The demand came in the middle of March, just about two weeks before the start of the new school year on April 1.

Before criticizing the Taketomi board of education, the education ministry should pay proper attention to the fact that the process in which the school textbook selection council for the Yaeyama area decided to choose the conservative textbook was abnormal. This point is critical when considering the textbook issue involving the Yaeyama area and the town of Taketomi.

In August 2011, the council, which includes education administrators and educators from the three municipalities in the area, chose a textbook compiled by Ikuhosha Co. as the junior high school civics textbook for the area’s three municipalities, although the selection council’s textbook researchers did not recommend the Ikuhosha textbook. The council head accomplished this by changing the council’s rule to allow it to select unrecommended textbooks once the researchers’ negative views of the textbook in question were clear. The boards of education in the city of Ishigaki and the town of Yonakuni in the Yaeyama area then decided to use the Ikuhosha textbook.

Reflecting a conservative perspective, the Ikuhosha textbook, for example, downplays the importance of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9, fails to fully describe the burden shouldered by Okinawans under the heavy U.S. military presence and praises nuclear power. Due to the book’s overwhelmingly conservative perspective, the Taketomi board of education opted for a textbook complied by Tokyo Shoseki Co. Because the town adopted a textbook not chosen by the council, the textbook is not covered by the central government’s free distribution scheme for textbooks. The town purchased copies of the Tokyo Shoseki textbook with money donated by townspeople and used the textbook in fiscal 2012 and 2013. It plans to continue to use the same textbook in fiscal 2014, defying the ministry’s demand.

Under the law on local education administration, the central government may call for overturning a local board decision when the right to receive education is clearly violated. But because this is not the case in Taketomi, the ministry had no other choice but to cherry-pick the provision of the Local Autonomy Law, which allows the central government to make a direct demand to local governments to change their administrative decisions when there is an emergency or a special need.

The education ministry’s direct demand to the town of Taketomi followed an earlier move directed at the Okinawa prefectural board of education. Also invoking the Local Autonomy Law, the ministry in October 2013 instructed the prefectural board to make the Taketomi board of education change its decision not to adopt the Ikuhosha civics textbook. Apparently respecting the decision by the Taketomi board, the prefectural board did not take action. This led the ministry to issue a direct demand to Taketomi.

Under the Local Autonomy Law, the town has the duty to correct what the education ministry regards as an illegal condition. But even if the town defies the ministry’s demand, the latter cannot force the town to accept the demand or punish it. The ministry is poised to file a lawsuit to have a court confirm that the town illegally refused to accept the demand. On the other hand, the town can ask for an administrative review by experts to have them examine whether the ministry’s demand is legally correct.

In an attempt to prevent the recurrence of this kind of situation, the education ministry has submitted to the Diet a bill to revise the law on the free distribution of public school textbooks.

We believe that the Abe administration should refrain from using legal means to impose its ideological stance on local autonomous bodies that have made a well-thought-out decision in educational matters. At the very least it should return to the previous Democratic Party of Japan government’s policy of tacitly accepting the Taketomi board of education’s decision.