The American media’s resurgent interest in U.S. President George Bush’s service as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard in the early ’70s might seem opportunistic given its timing. The controversy over whether or not Bush fulfilled his obligation to the Guard — records show unaccounted for gaps in his service — first flared up in 2000 during the last presidential campaign, and then died down after the election.

Now that another campaign is under way the story resurfaces in much the same way, spurred by inflammatory comments (filmmaker Michael Moore going so far as to accuse Bush of being a “deserter”). However, this time the story has more weight, since America is now at war. As the commander in chief and not just a contender, Bush is responsible for the more than 500 American lives that have been lost in Iraq. Though his Guard service may have no direct bearing on his performance as president, it has a tremendous bearing on his authority, especially given the belief in some quarters that Bush entered the National Guard in order to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.

The Bush brouhaha provides sobering contrast to the Japanese media attention to various public figures’ past academic records, most of which not only have no bearing on their current performance as politicians, but no bearing on anything at all.

Granted, the behavior of lower-house lawmaker Junichiro Koga, whose lack of a diploma from Pepperdine University in California started the whole gakureki (academic history) gorefest, deserves censure of some kind, but the diploma itself is beside the point. It isn’t even important that Koga misrepresented his academic records in his campaign statement last fall when he ran successfully for a seat from Fukuoka — it’s conceivable he really didn’t know he didn’t graduate.

The problem was his reaction, his insistence on going all the way to California to find out for sure when all he had to do was call up the school. By making a big deal out of a procedural faux pas, Koga dug himself even deeper into a hole. The media who followed him to California found out that he also overstayed his student visa by seven years and even skipped out on some debts he accumulated when he finally returned to Japan in 1991.

Since then, the media, as if unleashed by some invisible force, has been scouring campaign statements to find other scholastic scofflaws. Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Shinzo Abe may have inflated his time as a student at the University of Southern California from two semesters to two years. Even the prime minister’s overseas studies have come under scrutiny.

The media went totally overboard when they accused actress Naomi Kawashima of lying when she said she attended prestigious Aoyama Gakuen University. Actually, she did attend AGU. What the tabloids found was that she went through AGU’s nibu, or “night school” program, which isn’t quite as snobby as day school.

This pointless hair-splitting is a symptom of the same psychological disorder that causes politicians to inflate their academic records in the first place: an obsession with brand-name education. The media tells the public that they are only doing it to expose lies, but by doing it so recklessly they perpetuate an attitude that values diplomas over character and actual performance.

Last week, Aera published an Internet survey about academic records. Seventy-one percent of the respondents said they didn’t think gakureki were important, and 67 percent said that they didn’t equate academic records with intelligence. However, when asked if they believed Japan as a society placed a great deal of importance on gakureki, 77 percent answered in the affirmative.

These findings may be self-contradicting, but they explain how Koga’s minor mistake could be blown up into scandal. Most of the public say they don’t care whether or not a politician attended a brand-name school, so why do those politicians stretch the truth to appear that they have? Abe’s case is particularly pathetic. He is from one of Japan’s most powerful political families, but he only went to Seikei University. The temptation to inflate his short stint at USC was obviously irresistible.

What’s pathetic is that Abe, since he is a scion of one of the most powerful political families in Japan, is virtually guaranteed a lifelong political career, regardless of his gakureki. There is no reason for him or Koga or anyone to lie on their statements. It’s their insecurity that makes them fudge their records, not their ambition.

A scholar quoted in the Aera article says that while people overvalue academic performance, these performances are still important because they make people strive for excellence and thus bring about equality: a poor person can reach the top just as easily as a rich person can if he applies himself. Even if this were true (statistically, the more money you have, the greater the possibility of you getting into a brand-name school), it turns education into a competition.

If you really want to impress people education-wise, don’t go to school at all and then achieve something grand. People who lead interesting, fulfilling lives without the benefit of fancy degrees tend to invite more intense admiration. On a recent talk show where the guests were discussing the Koga scandal, American tarento Dave Spector mentioned that he only graduated from a senmon gakko (technical school). Viewers probably like him even more for it. Politicians should take note.

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