Issues | LAW OF THE LAND

Seven lessons from a Japanese morality textbook

by Colin P.A. Jones

Contributing Writer

Lawyers tend to be well-paid, and I’d argue we’re also slightly odd because we devote an abnormal proportion of our finite lives to reading — even writing — boring text that no sane person would bother with. Ever read a mutual fund prospectus? Well of course not — what sort of lunatic does that?

As someone who has written mutual fund prospectuses, I hope you can appreciate the sacrifices that have gone into this month’s column as it involved hours spent poring over something even more soul-destroying: Ministry of Education elementary and middle school textbooks on dōtoku or “public morals.” Here is what I learned:

Four seasons and a flag

Dōtoku has always been a component of the Japanese curriculum but was only elevated to a subject of instruction in its own right a few years ago. According to the education ministry, the change is due to globalization (of course!), new technologies such as social media, and the terrible mismatch between the shrinking supply of young people and the growing demands of older people feeling naturally entitled to tell them what to do. (OK, I extrapolated that last bit.)

Newness is hopefully why these textbooks seem so … clunky. Or perhaps they are just too ambitious in seeking to help pupils learn to: appreciate the difference between right and wrong, family love and the value of moderation, temperance and honesty; develop their own individuality (without bothering anyone else, of course); work hard; seek the truth; be polite, kind, thankful, trustworthy, friendly, accepting of others, respectful of rules, appreciative of social justice; have a public spirit; get along at school and in other groups; have an attitude of respect and love for the culture and traditions of Japan and the furusato (hometown); develop international understanding and friendship; love nature; feel awe toward beautiful things; and to be more aware of the importance and joy of life. I am probably missing a few things, but as you can see it is very impressive in scope, particularly if you assume this is all supposed to function as part of an education system that will reliably generate university graduation ceremonies full of 22-year-old college graduates wearing identical black interview suits. Perhaps that’s still preferable to the idea of “everyone selfishly pursue your own best interests and that will magically result in a just and equitable society” or whatever messaging Western socio-economic theory is up to these days.

Anyway, the texts at all levels seem to focus on themes you might expect, such as making sure all children know their country has four seasons. And a flag: The “international understanding” part of the curriculum seems to be an indirect way of getting kids to appreciate the (probably now uncontroversial) notion that Japan has a flag, because, hey, other countries do, too. And they also speak different languages in other countries. Americans say “harō.” And so forth.

The natural beauty of Japan is emphasized, of course, as are the unique wonders of its seasons. Mount Fuji makes frequent appearances in this context, and starts to feel a bit like the omnipresent Eye of Sauron, but that may have just been because I read a lot of these things in one sitting.

Kids overseas are selfish

The textbook for third and fourth graders features a touching story about a little boy who presents his mother with an itemized invoice for all the chores he does. His mother duly pays the invoiced amount but then presents him with her own bill, for being nice to him, looking after him when he is sick, buying him clothes and toys, and providing room and board. Except that in her invoice the amounts are all “zero.” The little boy immediately realizes what a little brat he has been, apologizes and gives her a refund.

This story is only noteworthy because the boy’s name is Bradley and all the invoiced amounts are in dollars. That 8- and 9-year-old kids are naturally assumed to know how invoices work is itself fascinating, but the for-ex part of it must be particularly mystifying. Presumably this lesson helps set the foundation for unscripted digressions about how “for’ners” are inherently dry-hearted money grubbers, but that might just be the paranoia speaking.

The bureaucracy of swings

The same volume also contains a sort of “thought experiment” involving an elementary school principal who prohibits children from playing on the swings because of injuries. They do what comes naturally to 8- and 9-year-olds: Form a committee and draw up rules for swing use that are then presented to the principal who magnanimously restores their privileges.

Yes, it is obviously good for children to learn the protocols for petitioning authority figures. I still can’t help wondering if the story might be a bit confusing for the children reading it, since I don’t think I have ever seen anything as close to entertaining as a swing set on a Japanese school ground.

Kids have a lot to think about

From the earliest age, the textbooks encourage children to think about various problems they may encounter in daily life — specifically, the types of problems adults want them to solve, like behaving properly, not being mean to classmates, and controlling their own sloth and rapaciousness. Various questions are asked, but there is usually an easily inferred correct answer, often in the accompanying stories about bad kids, selfish animals or various admirable historical figures foreign and domestic. It is, of course, not a bad thing to remind kids to think about the consequences of their actions, though it would be confusing for those who read this in conjunction with the Japanese-language text my daughter used at her elementary school, which featured an essay by a Japanese Olympic gold medalist who attributes her success to “acting first, then thinking.”

There is also a fair amount of energy devoted to getting the younger children to “realizing they are alive,” signs of which are having a pulse, waking up in the morning and feeling good, enjoying studying, having warm hands and so forth. Why they need a textbook to make them aware of their existential status is a mystery.

Aisatsu, aisatsu, aisatsu

Hello! Proper greetings are really important and it probably cannot be repeated enough times. I am sorry I did not say “hello” at the start of this column. Goodbye.

Obey the law … obey it all

It gets complicated in the upper-level texts for older kids because they have to think about hormone-ish stuff like other genders, and adult-ish stuff like what sort of ambitions they should have, how to seek the truth and how society works. On this last point it is interesting because of the way laws, rights and duties are characterized.

In the textbooks for younger children there are discussions of “kimari” (rules) but they are generally close to home — going to bed on time and that sort of thing. At upper-grade levels they mention laws and how breaking them can result in criminal punishments. Why do such laws, or kimari, exist for that matter? Not a lot of time is spent on why particular rules exist, they just do and kids should obey them. They should also obey other less defined norms too, apparently, as is suggested by the inclusion of a quote from the political scientist Sakuzo Yoshino: “Nothing is so troublesome to society as the idea that you can do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t impinge on a provision of the law.”

At higher grade levels there is some brief discussion of constitutional and human rights as largely abstract concepts. The assertion of rights only seems to be portrayed in negative terms: someone asserting their rights while neglecting their duties, or using their freedoms excessively to the detriment of others. The idea that rights are something individual children could claim against those around them is never introduced.

Adults exist in parallel worlds

Much of the content of the textbooks I read seemed perfectly wholesome, but I couldn’t help but wonder how useful they are to the children for whom they are intended. Why? Because they don’t seem to portray the world in which children actually live.

While they contain some valuable information on subjects related to getting on with classmates and other peers, such as discrimination and bullying, there is almost complete silence on how to deal with adults, other than in largely tangential ways: respecting parents, saying hello to the neighbors, looking to famous historical figures as role models, helping the elderly and politely petitioning principals.

In reality, adults play a critical role in a child’s daily life and, depending on the state of a family relationship or a teacher’s temperament, can be a significant source of confusion or stress. Thus, to present a seemingly holistic set of values that simply ignores what teachers, parents and adults are doing, whether those adults themselves are acting consistently with the precepts being articulated, and how to address situations when they are not, seems to be a huge and potentially confusing blind spot.

It is an understandable lacuna, of course, if one assumes an unspoken goal of Japanese education policy is to make children (and, ultimately, adults) easy to manage. Encouraging kids to question parents or challenge teachers — to engage in applied critical thinking — would make everything more difficult. For adults, at least. But in failing to depict the world the way it actually is, I wonder how convincing to children the rest of the message contained in these well-intentioned materials are.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto and primary author of “The Japanese Legal System” (West Academic Publishing, co-authored with Frank Ravitch). The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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