• SHARE

“Of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior” — that’s Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of the slippery word “moral.” “Moral education,” however, it does not define. Somebody will have to.

In October 2011, a 13-year-old boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, committed suicide. “Bullying,” in this case as in many similar ones, seems the merest euphemism for the torture his classmates had been putting him through. Teachers were reportedly aware of what was going on. They shrugged, turned a blind eye, laughed. Boys will be boys.

Define “moral” as you will — this is clearly immoral. It jolted the education ministry into action. Current “moral education” was evidently inadequate. It needed reinforcement. Experts met, discussed, planned, recommended. The upshot is that as of 2018, “moral education,” now an ungraded school “activity,” will become a full-fledged “subject,” subject to teacher evaluation though not actual grading, its content subject to government oversight.

All childhood education is moral. It has to be. We are not born knowing that the strong should not torment the weak; that human rights and property rights are fruits of civilization that must be respected; that while injury, suffering and death are inevitable, the world being what it is, we should not inflict them, even on people we don’t like, however strongly we dislike them, for whatever reason. We are not born knowing this, and must be taught it. That’s moral ed.

So far it’s simple enough. Unfortunately, moral education in Japan has a checkered past. As administered under the militarist government whose defeat in a catastrophic war 71 years ago was commemorated last week, it included, along with such injunctions as “Be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters, as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true,” the exhortation to, “should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State.” The quotes are from the famous Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, which formed the crux of moral ed until 1945.

The prewar and wartime moral ideal was blind obedience and self-sacrificing devotion to the nation — “100 million hearts beating as one.” Could the upgrading of moral education be a first step on the road back to that?

“Depending on how the process operates,” the Asahi Shimbun editorialized in July, “it could come close to reviving the prewar system of government-designated school textbooks, which taught patriotism and played a role in militaristic education.”

“Such criticism,” retorted the Yomiuri Shimbun, “is entirely off the mark.”

Disagreement of this sort is natural and inevitable. It pervades every aspect of public life. What seems plausible to some is ridiculous to others; one person’s morality is another person’s villainy; what is (or seems) moral in one context is (or seems) immoral, even criminal, in another.

Sapio magazine speaks in its September issue of “Japan’s civil war.” It’s a pregnant phrase in a country that knew centuries of internecine carnage whose only “civil” aspect was that it was not international. Sapio’s civil war is civil in the other sense too: No one is rushing to arms, the norms of civilized discourse prevail and the conflicts are not paralyzing but on the contrary, bracing. They stir thought: Should Japan revise its Constitution, or leave it alone? Is pacifism an appeasing and civilizing influence in an increasingly dangerous world, or does it leave one a sitting duck? Are street demonstrations a proper way to protest government policy, or are they mere rowdyism? Is “hate speech” verbal violence and thus criminal, or self-expression and thus dignified by constitutional protection?

These are among the intellectual conflicts Sapio depicts, usually by pitting people of opposing viewpoints against one another — with the interesting if predictable result that no one in the course of discussion changes his or her mind. Is that good or bad? We admire firm convictions but deplore inflexible stubbornness. Which are we seeing here?

Is there a right answer and a wrong answer to the question, for example, of whether to scrap Article 9 of the Constitution? It’s probably the most fundamental question in Sapio’s package. Article 9 is what makes Japan “pacifist,” to the extent the word justly applies. It reads, in part, “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.”

Even within the pro-revision camp, opinions range from one extreme to the other — Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida saying, “For the time being, I have no thoughts of revising Article 9”; Kyoko Nakayama, former head of the Party for Japanese Kokoro, countering, “The current Constitution cannot protect the nation.”

The debate, far from settled and probably unsettlable, raises the question: Can a country be moral? Citizens can, should and must be, but can the country that educates them to be so afford, in the international arena, to live up its own moral standards? Should it even try? Pacifist Japan among nonpacifist neighbors could plausibly, though not definitively, be likened to a minnow among sharks, or to a bullied schoolchild advised to meet violence with pacifism. At both the individual and national levels, the example might inflame the bullies, or disarm them. There are bullies and bullies.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for all its remarkable electoral success, has provoked street demonstrations and other forms of citizen activism on a scale Japan had not seen in decades. Among the activist groups Sapio features are the lately-disbanded SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy) and UNITE.

SEALDs’ moral quest is in its name: liberal democracy, with “emergency” suggesting a perceived threat to it posed by Abe’s conservative nationalism. UNITE, equally youthful and no less activist, has a diametrically opposed political agenda — aligned with Abe on constitutional revision and defense issues but going its own way on such social and economic questions as “What is women’s place in society and the economy?”

“At home” is its answer, in defiance of the Abe administration’s drive to empower women for the sake of the economy. This indeed does take us back to prewar ideals. If someone were to object that such a stance goes against the spirit of the times, the answer would perhaps be that morality is eternal. Is it?

Mention was made in last week’s column of absurdist playwright Minoru Betsuyaku’s lament that the absurdity of real life now eclipses the absurdity of absurdist theater. One tentative explanation suggests itself: The past was morally absolute. Christianity in the West, principles of loyalty, obedience and willing self-sacrifice in Japan, were largely — not absolutely, of course — unquestioned. Nothing now is, and likely never will be again. So much the better; it shows we’ve grown up — but what are the implications for moral ed?

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)