How do you teach a child right from wrong? I certainly don’t have all the answers. In our home, we’re still working on why you can’t hit your brother, even when he’s being deliberately annoying — as he has been all this week, answering any direct question with nonsense (“What do you want for dinner?” “Patio furniture!”). I felt like socking him too.

It is not easy to guide children’s ethical development, but the Japanese government is making a concerted effort. Like every other schoolchild in Japan, my younger son, who is in fourth grade at a public elementary school, receives moral instruction once a week. It’s a separate subject with its own curriculum and textbook.

I was concerned about this when we first put our kids in Japanese schools. I grew up in the United States, and so I had no idea what moral education here would entail. What if the school was teaching things at odds with our own values?

So I did some research. I learned that the current morals program dates back more than four decades, and is updated every 10 years along with the rest of the national curriculum.

Before the war, moral education was called shushin (ethics) and emphasized Confucian values, but during the nationalist period it was transformed into patriotic indoctrination. Shushin was abolished after the war, but left such a bad taste in people’s mouths that it was some years before anyone could talk about developing something to replace it.

In 1958, moral education was reintroduced as an independent subject, with a new name — dotoku no jikan (morals time).

Dotoku no jikan wasn’t taken very seriously at first — ask adults in their 30s and 40s what they did in dotoku, and they’ll probably say their teachers used the time for other studies.

An older teacher explained it to me this way: “After the bad experiences during the war, many educators felt schools shouldn’t be preaching morality.” But things have changed again, he said. “Now there’s a resurgence in interest in what schools can do. People are very concerned about juvenile crime and the apparent decline in traditional values.”

A recent survey on priorities in education supports that. In March 2003, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government asked 2,000 parents and 500 companies what they thought schools should emphasize. The answer given most frequently was moral education, with more than half of corporate respondents stating it should be the top priority. For parents, it was a close second behind foreign languages.

It’s important to note that classroom work is just one part of moral instruction at Japanese schools. The national curriculum specifically instructs schools to promote the moral development of children through daily activities (such as cleaning the school and caring for pets and plants on the premises) and special activities (clubs, student council, field trips and volunteering). These activities are standard at Japanese schools, as are pep talks and posters encouraging good manners and hard effort.

A few years ago, the schools where I live started holding an annual open-school day specifically for moral education so parents and others from the community can see what schools are doing. The most recent one was held earlier this month, and I went to observe.

In my son’s classroom, the kids were giving little speeches on their totteoki no basho (favorite places) in the neighborhood. A girl described a park with good slides. My son spoke about the hideout he built in an empty lot (although he refused to divulge the exact location). Another boy said his favorite place was the liquor shop on his way home from school. “Hey, you can buy good snacks there!” he insisted when titters escaped from parents at the back.

I wasn’t sure how the lesson promoted moral development; it seemed more like a language class. When I asked the teacher, she explained the purpose was to teach the children to “value their community” — one of the stated goals of the morals curriculum. Others include teaching children to respect life, to be thankful to the people who help us and to keep promises.

Which brings me to the lesson I observed in another classroom. The children had just read a story about a boy named Mamoru who had promised to bring a book to a sick friend. She is waiting anxiously in her hospital bed for the book, but when Mamoru gets home from school that day, he discovers his grandmother has arrived unexpectedly to take the family out for dinner. Mamoru is so excited he forgets all about his promise until they’re almost out the door. His mother suggests they call the hospital and say he’ll bring the book the next day.

The kids were engaged in a noisy debate about what Mamoru should do. Some agreed with Mamoru’s mother. “She’s an adult so if she says it’s OK, it’s OK,” one girl said. Another asserted that Mamoru should keep his promise, even if he had to miss the dinner. “No, that’s not right either,” a classmate retorted. “His grandmother came to see him. Family is important, too.”

The kids moved into the gray areas of Mamoru’s ethical dilemma. “Did the grandmother come from far away? That would make a difference,” one girl tried. Another suggested sending the book to the hospital by baiku-bin (motorcycle messenger), an idea that was shouted down as probably inappropriate and certainly too expensive.

I’m now comfortable with the morals program at our school. I appreciate the emphasis on teaching kids responsibility and respect through daily activities like cleaning the school, because kids learn best by doing. But I see the classroom work as valuable, too, because it raises issues and gives the kids a chance to think about them.

Take, for instance, the lesson about the boy who promised to bring his friend a book. The textbook didn’t say what Mamoru decided, nor did it state what he should do. The teacher facilitated the classroom discussion, but he didn’t fish for specific answers. Nor did he label any of the children’s suggestions as “right” or “wrong.” The children were allowed to think for themselves, and to draw their own conclusions.

Which is exactly what they’ll have to do when they confront their own real-life moral dilemmas.

I’ll be speaking next month about my children’s experiences in Japanese school as part of Minato International Association’s “Let’s Rediscover Japan” lecture series. The talk will be in English on Dec. 11 from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at Mita NN Hall, Space D, 4-1-23 Shiba, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Inquiries to MIA at (03) 3578-3530 or office@minato-intl-assn.gr.jp

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