When 36-year-old Sayaka Murata recently won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature, the media latched onto the author’s background rather than the novel itself. Murata continues to work part-time as a convenience store clerk, and gains inspiration for characters and plots from her work environment. Her novel is called “Konbini Ningen,” which means “Convenience Store People.”

What the media loves about Murata is that she has accomplished something extraordinary while holding down such an average job. But the novel itself is really about how extraordinary people have to become average in order to survive.

The protagonist, Keiko Furukura, has always been viewed as “strange” by others, including her family, who once thought she required treatment. She doesn’t react to circumstances the way “normal” people do, but she recognizes her differences and tries her best to fit in. In order to become a “regular person,” she begins working at a convenience store. There, she studies and copies other people. Convenience stores are the perfect place for this sort of project because they are run according to a job manual issued by management. Working there, she feels she has “become part of the machine of the world.” In truth, she is still the same person, but now “disguised as a member of society.”

“Konbini Ningen” takes on special significance in light of the recent controversy surrounding the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s approach to education and how it wants to socialize young people.

The education ministry plans to promote morals (dōtoku) into a fully fledged scholastic subject for elementary schools by 2018, and for junior high schools by 2019. Morals has always been taught in school, but it was not graded, and thus not strictly administered by the ministry. The Asahi Shimbun was alarmed by the policy, saying that “evaluating” a student’s grasp of morals is a difficult endeavor, and that an understanding of it tends to be subjective. The ministry, however, has insisted that a child’s acquisition of morals will not be “scored” by means of a weighted grading system, but rather explained through “written evaluations.”

A central concern is the emphasis on a “love of country and one’s home town.” Is it appropriate for a teacher to evaluate a child’s sense and scale of patriotism? The ministry believes that there are many factors that contribute to morals education. But since it will become a standard school subject, textbooks and materials will have to be approved by the government, which makes it likely that patriotism and other facets of moral determination will adhere to a fixed ideology.

Even more problematic was the LDP’s recent monthlong campaign to root out public school teachers who violate strictures of neutrality by advocating for certain political positions in the classroom.

On June 15, the ruling party posted a notice on its website asking people who observed such violations to report them by naming the teacher, the nature of the violation and where it happened, etc. The person doing the reporting is required to submit their own name, but that doesn’t mean that people will not use the site to pursue vendettas or rat on educators they don’t like.

The reaction of the Asahi Shimbun was, again, alarm, and the LDP removed the solicitation from its website on July 19, without comment. Nevertheless, it will likely have an effect. The Asahi wondered exactly what that effect will be.

Shinji Fukushima, in his regular column for the newspaper, stated that the effect will be similar to the one enforced by tonari-gumi (neighborhood associations) during World War II. These associations were formed so that households could monitor one another for purposes of national defense. If anyone in the community complained about the war or expressed doubt over the way it was being prosecuted, that person would be reported to the authorities. Consequently, no one said anything, regardless of how they felt. Fukushima says the LDP hasn’t explained how the reports of violations will be evaluated and by whom. Without transparency and due process, they may as well be the war-era kenpei (military police).

On a J-Wave radio talk show that aired July 22, education expert Daisuke Hayashi pointed out that, in principle, the LDP insists that “all political opinions must be represented” if any one is advocated in school, and that includes nominally conservative or right-wing views.

“It’s true that teaching about politics should be neutral,” he said, but when the LDP monitors teachers, it has a damping effect on any discussion about politics. The ministry has never explained what “neutral” means. As a result, local boards of education put pressure on schools where mock elections are carried out — used to teach students the purpose of voting — afraid that the ministry will complain about them.

Regardless of the intentions, the effect of these directives is that politics becomes a touchy topic, and students end up naturally averse to political discussion. This explains why so many young people complained recently when a member of the student activist group SEALDs appeared at the recent Fuji Rock Festival, despite the fact that politics have always had a place in popular music.

This timidity mirrors the fear in the press about appearing to cover political issues from a “biased” point of view. As it stands, except for the Asahi and Tokyo Shimbun, the mainstream media have not objected to the government’s education policies. Like intimidated teachers and school administrators, they’d rather not be seen as rocking the boat, but when you think about it, everybody has a bit of Keiko Furukura in them.

In such an environment, however, it’s safer to work in a convenience store, where everything is predictable, than it is to assert one’s differences, take chances and be extraordinary.

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