Nariaki Nakayama of the Liberal Democratic Party resigned because of gaffes he made in front of the press only five days after being appointed transport minister in the Cabinet Prime Minister Taro Aso formed in late September.

Nakayama retracted his remarks, except for the hostile ones he made toward the Japan Teachers’ Union (Nikkyoso). In fact, he escalated his attacks on the union, going as far as calling it “a cancer.”

Nakayama, a former education minister in Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet, is not alone in his views, which are shared by many conservatives.

Why is Nikkyoso viewed with such hostility by the rightists?

Following are some facts about Nikkyoso.

What is Nikkyoso?

Nikkyoso is the country’s largest federation of teacher unions in terms of members.

Educators from kindergarten to university, as well as vocational schools, can join. A majority of its members are public school teachers.

At its peak in 1958, an overwhelming 86.3 percent of all public school teachers were Nikkyoso members, an education ministry survey shows.

But its influence has gradually declined, as has that of all other unions over the years. In the same survey, in 2007 some 290,150 public school teachers were Nikkyoso members, accounting for only 28.3 percent of the entire number, and the lowest-ever rate.

Is it true, as Nakayama said, that students in prefectures with a higher percentage of teachers who are Nikkyoso members scored lower in the national achievement tests?

No. Education minister Ryu Shionoya and vice minister Masami Zeniya both denied any correlation between the two.

The nationwide tests on Japanese language and mathematics were held in 2007 and this year for sixth-graders and third-year junior high school students to utilize the results to see how much they are acquiring through the education system and in what ways it needs to be improved.

Then why do Nakayama and many other conservative politicians, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, regard Nikkyoso as a staunch enemy?

These politicians believe Nikkyoso is a key force opposed to promoting nationalism in schools, and is also a strong supporter of opposition parties.

In an interview with the conservative Sankei Shimbun on Sept. 30, Nakayama was quoted as saying he was aware that most teachers work very hard with their students, but added some “radicals” among Nikkyoso’s members are a bad influence on others.

“They don’t teach the national flag or anthem and oppose moral education. I believe they are the cause of the problem,” he told the paper.

Nakayama added that Nikkyoso is a major supporter of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, and claims it would greatly change the political scene if the DPJ wins the next Lower House general election.

What sort of political affiliation does Nikkyoso have?

In addition to being a DPJ supporter, Nikkyoso also backs the Social Democratic Party. It is also a member of the Japan Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), which is a major source of votes for the DPJ.

Among the Diet members of both chambers, eight of the nine Nikkyoso affiliates are DPJ politicians, including Upper House President Azuma Koshiishi, a former chairman of the Yamanashi prefectural branch of Nikkyoso.

Koshiishi was previously a Social Democratic Party of Japan member, and was among those who eventually joined the DPJ. The remaining members renamed the party the SDP.

Historically, the SDPJ and the ruling LDP held a clear ideological divide. But this didn’t prevent them, in the early 1990s, from forming, along with New Party Sakigake, a coalition government — after the LDP had briefly lost its Lower House majority. The time coincided with the end of the Cold War and the weakening of the Socialists.

What sort of ideological background does Nikkyoso have?

Established in June 1947, Nikkyoso was among the many unions formed after World War II, partly encouraged by the Allied Occupation as part of promoting democracy.

According to the “50 Year History of Nikkyoso” published in 1997, Nikkyoso aimed to improve the salaries and working conditions of teachers and raise their social and political status, but it has also been keen on promoting democracy, equality and peace among students.

In 1951, Nikkyoso issued the slogan “Do not send our students to war again” — as memories lingered over the fact that school teachers had cooperated in the war effort by educating children to blindly serve their country and the Emperor. This remains its motto today.

Nikkyoso opposed government authorities’ control of education policies, which led them to fight the education ministry and the LDP for decades.

During the 1950s and ’60s they employed aggressive tactics. For example, they fought strongly against the rating system of teachers that boards of education were planning to introduce. In those days, they staged strikes, and members were arrested or reprimanded.

Over the years, Nikkyoso also attacked the ministry’s textbook approval system and fought against forcing children to sing the national anthem and fly the national flag at school events, which they believe are symbols of Japanese militarism and imperialism.

Meanwhile, Nikkyoso has supported the move to acknowledge Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia and the Pacific and have it included in history textbooks.

But it seems Nikkyoso has changed its strategy and is more willing to cooperate with the education ministry nowadays. When and why did this policy shift take place?

Nikkyoso carried out a major policy change in 1995 to promote a closer partnership with the ministry.

According to Hiroaki Akaike, director of public relations of the union, the change in the political landscape with the LDP-SDPJ-Sakigake coalition had some influence on Nikkyoso’s tactics.

The SDPJ’s participation, under Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, in the coalition with the LDP considerably weakened the Cold War ideological confrontation between right and left.

“It was decided that it would be beneficial to be part of the process of making the policies,” and Nikkyoso changed its attitude from confrontation to cooperation with the ministry, Akaike said.

In fact, ever since this transition, Nikkyoso educators have been members of the Central Council of Education, an advisory board to the education minister.

After Nakayama’s remarks, education minister Shionoya said he believed it was important that the union and ministry cooperate to improve education for children.

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