Education bill shifts power to the state

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In the wake of Thursday’s Lower House passage of the education reform bill, critics wonder whether news management may have been used to clear the path for what one commentator alleged to be a “fascist” power grab by the central government.

The concerns arise following revelations, soon after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office on Sept. 26, of pervasive coverups within the education system — problems administrators and teachers say were known for years but had been kept hidden.

In recent weeks, the media have reported that the education ministry claimed no students had committed suicide due to bullying since 1999, despite evidence to the contrary.

And Kyodo News reported last week that the ministry knew four years ago that some 16 percent of incoming college students had not taken world history, which is part of the required curriculum, in high school. The ministry responded simply by telling teachers to follow curriculum guidelines. No sanctions were given.

“When the press reported such problems in the past, the issue ended there,” said political commentator and author Minoru Morita.

This time around, he said, the government drummed up a public outcry to create a pretext for wresting administrative control away from boards of education — where Morita believes it belongs.

“That is the chief motivation behind this legal revision,” he said, adding that the ruling coalition did not raise objections after similar revelations in years past because the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, New Komeito, had not yet agreed on wording in the legislation that the LDP wanted: provisions aimed at teaching patriotism in the classroom. At New Komeito’s urging, the LDP agreed to water down the language early this year.

Opinion polls show a strong desire for major changes to the education system. Critics are concerned the Abe Cabinet may try to exploit the sense that the nation’s schools are falling apart for its own ends.

Daichi Horiuchi, secretary general of the Toyama Prefectural High School Teachers’ Union, said while increased public interest in education issues may be focusing media attention on problems in schools, the possibility of political manipulation can’t be discounted.

“With the committee debate centered on curriculum and bullying scandals in the Lower House, there hasn’t been much time to discuss the substance of the revision,” Horiuchi said.

At issue is Article 16 of the bill, which states: “Free from subjection to unfair control, the administration of education must be conducted in accordance with this law and other education-related laws, with suitable delegation of duties and mutual cooperation between the central government and local government organizations, in a fair and appropriate manner.”

Critics say if the bill is passed, the phrase “this law and other education-related laws” in Article 16 will open the door to greater control by the state, which until now has been constrained by Article 10 of the current law. It reads: “Free from subjection to unfair control, the administration of education should be conducted with responsibility vested directly in all people of the nation.”

“Article 10 has worked as a brake to prevent the central government from interfering in education,” said Takashi Narushima, an expert in education law at Niigata University. “The revision lets the state intervene more in education.”

Political commentator Morita, who has condemned the ultraconservative stance of recent Japanese leaders, says the change is an invitation to disaster.

Morita believes Abe’s Cabinet will waste no time using the revised law to push a staunchly nationalist agenda.

In addition to potentially shifting the administrative balance of power, the bill calls for “cultivating an attitude that respects tradition and culture, loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them, while respecting other countries and contributing to international peace and development.”

Although the compromise worked out between the LDP and New Komeito removed any direct reference to patriotism in the wording, Morita sees the bill as a throwback to Japan’s prewar militarism.

“Before the war, education in Japan was completely run by the state, and this was the root of our country’s big mistakes. We abandoned that path in the postwar period to adopt a system of education based on democratic ideals.

“That requires handing authority to teachers and local government. To reject this is a mistake. For the state to single-handedly regulate education, to reinstate a system (that puts education) completely in the grip of the central government, this is the basis of fascism,” Morita said.