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Starting in the 2018 academic year, so-called “dotoku” (moral education) will be part of the regular curriculum in elementary and junior high schools, instead of its current status as an “activity outside the set subjects.”

It is a controversial change, because of the politically charged question of what ethics should be taught and how students should be evaluated.

Many experts have questioned whether teachers are sufficiently skilled to assess their students’ sense of morals.

They have also voiced concern about the choice of teaching materials — with some warning of the risk of nationalist indoctrination under a conservative government. The education ministry denies this.

The decision came after the Central Council for Education, an advisory panel to the education minister, recommended in October that the ministry bolster the subject’s status.

Has Japan taught ethics before?

A course called “shushin” (ethics) was taught from 1890 to 1945. Shushin focused on 25 virtues, including friendship, fidelity and engaging in activities for the public good.

Reforms around 1900 saw the introduction of concepts such as diligence and frugality, billed as essential ingredients for the nation’s development, and in the Showa Period (1926-1989) greater emphasis was placed on the role that individuals should play in society and in national life.

After the war, shushin was abolished by the Allied Occupation forces because it was seen as one factor behind the population’s militaristic psyche.

In 1958, ethics classes were revived and given the name dotoku.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been trying to strengthen ethics teaching in light of the rise in reported schoolyard bullying — with an emphasis on stamping it out.

“We became aware of the importance of dealing with bullying, especially after a junior high school student in 2011 committed suicide after being bullied at his school in Otsu (in Shiga Prefecture),” said Ryo Mino, a senior specialist in the education ministry’s elementary and secondary education bureau. “This incident prompted us to review and expand the scope of ethics teaching so that teachers and students will think more seriously in class about bullying and the importance of life.”

Abe had originally wanted to make ethics an official school subject during his first administration from 2006 to 2007, but that plan fell through because then-education minister Bunmei Ibuki was reluctant, arguing that compiling a government-approved textbook and evaluating students would consume too much time and effort.

The current education chief, Hakubun Shimomura, feels confident he can push the plan forward.

How will students be evaluated?

When ethics was not part of the official curriculum it did not have to be examined rigorously. That will now change.

But students will not be graded like they are in other mandatory subjects, such as Japanese language and mathematics.

They will be evaluated subjectively, with the teacher making comments on each student’s performance.

What are the worries?

Critics say ethics classes, which will be held once a week, are an easy way to impose specific values on students.

Some experts and parents fear teachers will give good grades only to those pupils who share their opinions. But this “will not be the case, as the teachers will be given guidelines on how to find good sides in each student, and to note each student’s emotional development during the course,” said the ministry’s Mino. “The students will not be criticized in any way.”

One change is the standardization of textbooks. Until now, ethics classes have used supplementary textbooks and have incorporated materials devised by the teachers themselves. This meant the course content varied from class to class.

With the introduction of government-authorized textbooks, some experts fear teachers may lose their creative freedom.

When is it slated for introduction?

The education ministry plans to revise course guidelines this fiscal year and then start examining publishers’ textbooks by fiscal 2016.

The textbooks should be screened and approved by fiscal 2017 and ethics will become an official subject in fiscal 2018.

What safeguards are likely?

Experts fear that moral education could be used to steer a generation into the kind of militarism last seen before and during World War II.

The education ministry’s Mino said that will not happen as the current textbooks contain not a hint of “patriotism.” He said the ministry intends to uphold that standard even when ethics becomes a regular subject.

What do independent experts say about trying to teach morality?

Hidenori Fujita, chairman of the Tokyo-based Japanese Educational Research Association, is against the concept on the grounds that it could instill in students a cookie-cutter brand of “good, moralistic behavior.”

“There is a risk that some students will try to put on a good face so they will be seen in a good light by their teachers, in line with the textbook that the education ministry chooses,” Fujita said. “But inside, they might be accumulating stress. This could be dangerous, because the stress may not be clearly seen from the outside.”

On the other hand, he said, “other students may strongly resist being force-fed the idea of ‘good pupil’ models, and may feel they are not accepted if they express a view that does not coincide with the teacher’s view. This will have a negative effect on the process of self-development.”

It is important for moral education to be balanced, by introducing materials that will evoke discussion and by allowing the students to express contradictory and conflicting ideas and opinions, Fujita said.

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