Once declared incompatible with Japan’s postwar transformation into a democracy, a 19th-century Imperial edict on patriotism is slowly making its way back into the nation’s education. Spearheading its resurgence is none other than the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Last month, Abe’s Cabinet approved an unprecedented statement declaring that the edict can be used as teaching material in schools, leaving the impression the government is endorsing the prewar document that, among other things, dictates unquestioning devotion to the Emperor.

“Use of the Imperial Rescript on Education as teaching material cannot be denied,” as long as its usage does not violate the Constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education, the Cabinet said in a statement on March 31.

The statement added, however, that it is inappropriate to treat the rescript as if it were the only fundamental value underpinning the nation’s educational system, apparently emphasizing a difference from its holy status before and during the war.

Nonetheless, “the Cabinet’s approval can be interpreted as an official endorsement of the Imperial rescript,” said Teruhisa Horio, a professor emeritus of education studies at the University of Tokyo.

“It could prompt some educators and textbook publishers to recast the document in a positive light.”

The edict was issued by Emperor Meiji in 1890 when Japan — in the grip of its rapid shift into modernization — was searching for a moral backbone that could serve as the Japanese equivalent of teachings under Christianity in the West, according to Horio.

Drafted by statesman Kowashi Inoue, the edict fundamentally positions the Emperor over the people, or his “subjects,” and touts a gamut of ethical values from filial piety to solidarity between siblings and loyal friendships to academic diligence.

But it also constituted what Horio called a “linchpin” of Japan’s wartime moral education called shushin (moral training), a now-defunct subject that instilled in elementary school pupils a sense of nationalism.

“School principals would periodically gather students in an all-school assembly and read out the rescript. The rescript, along with a portrait of the Emperor, was treated as the most cherished items in school,” said the 84-year-old Horio.

“I myself come from a generation who underwent such education. We all recited the text. It didn’t take me long before I memorized it all.”

At the crux of the edict’s message, Horio said, is “loyalty and patriotism” that years later would help drive Japan into military aggression.

As the official translation of the document puts it: “Should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.”

The edict was later unanimously declared null and void by the postwar Diet in 1948, on the grounds that its doctrine “clearly undermines basic human rights and calls into question Japan’s international fidelity.”

Controversy over the edict flared anew when Abe’s alleged ties with the ultranationalist Tsukamoto Kindergarten in Osaka Prefecture came under the spotlight in the Diet in February.

The kindergarten, run by school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which is at the center of a murky land deal, sparked a public outcry over its curriculum, including its instruction to its pupils to recite 12 virtues prescribed by the edict every morning, based on the belief that it encapsulates Japan’s traditional morality.

Meiji Jingu Shrine, which enshrines Emperor Meiji, laments on its website that the postwar removal of the Imperial rescript “significantly degraded our morality and led to the proliferation of extreme forms of individualism, causing many serious problems not only in schools, but in our local communities and at home.”

“It’s time we re-recognized the value of the rescript and worked hard to resurrect a virtuous Japan,” the shrine says.

Although much less blatant, a positive assessment of the document is an undercurrent seemingly ingrained in the Abe government.

While emphasizing that the government has “no intention of actively encouraging the educational use of the Imperial rescript,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has repeated the position that it can still be taught in school, citing some of its universal values, such as filial dedication.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, too, told the Upper House Budget Committee last month that she doesn’t think the Imperial rescript is entirely wrong, and was adamant that its “core spirit” calling for Japan’s shift into a “virtuous country” should be restored.

Vice education minister Hiroyuki Yoshiie, meanwhile, stunned opposition lawmakers on Friday by revealing the ministry’s position that having children recite the rescript every morning — as was done during wartime — is “not a problem as long as it doesn’t violate the Fundamental Law of Education,” a statute that spells out a batch of educational principles expected of Japanese schools.

Asked whether such an act would run counter to the law’s philosophy, Yoshiie said it should be determined by each municipality on a case-by-case basis.

Noting that the rescript is already quoted by existing textbooks as a way to teach historical fact, Yoshiie, who was answering Democratic Party lawmaker Kenta Izumi, said: “If you ban the mere act of reading aloud something, it would make using textbooks virtually impossible.”

But Yoshiie’s response seemed at odds with a position expressed by an administration decades ago.

In 1983, Mitsuo Setoyama, the education minister under the government of Yasuhiro Nakasone, point-black denounced it as “regrettable” that the principal of a private high school in Shimane Prefecture was reciting the rescript to his student body during an annual ceremony to commemorate National Foundation Day.

“Given the history and nature of the rescript, it is incompatible with the Constitution and the basic education law,” Setoyama said, adding that he instructed the Shimane Prefectural Government to issue a warning against the school.

Although those in favor of the rescript seek to justify the text by bringing up its universal moral values such as filial piety, critics say doing so risks obfuscating its true nature.

“The core message of the rescript is basically ‘you need to sacrifice your life for the Emperor in the event of an emergency.’ One of its sentences enumerating 12 ‘virtues’ such as filial piety ultimately concludes with this pronouncement,” Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party told a news conference earlier this month.

Scholar and freelance author Masanori Tsujita, an expert on Japan’s modern history, agrees.

“If taken out of context, concepts such as ‘filial piety’ may sound like a decent idea, but singling out each of those details is not an appropriate way to form your judgment,” Tsujita said.

“We need to take into account the big picture of the text, which is dedication to the Emperor,” he said.

But this “big picture” message has been largely lost in translation in what is perhaps the most popular rendition of the archaic edict available today, Tsujita said.

This particular version of the translation is the brainchild of the late Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Morio Sasaki, who put into easier-to-understand words the prewar creed in his 1972 book titled “Yomigaeru Kyoiku Chokugo” (“Resurrecting the Imperial Rescript on Education”).

Today, Sasaki’s translation is quoted almost verbatim by entities such as Meiji Jingu and Tsukamoto Kindergarten. This, coupled with a lack of alternatives, has made this version the most widely circulated, Tsujita said.

Defense Minister Inada’s repeated calls for Japan’s transformation into a dogi kokka (virtuous country)” — a key phrase used by the translation — suggest that her favorable judgment of the text was based on Sasaki’s rendition.

His translation, however, not only glosses over any mention of the Emperor but camouflages pro-war patriotism inherent in the rescript, Tsujita said.

The one uploaded by Meiji Jingu, for example, urges the public to “dedicate yourselves to your nation’s peace and security,” instead of, as the original said more bluntly, “offer yourselves courageously to the State,” in the event of an emergency.

“A memory of war was still fresh when Sasaki published his book. So in calling for the revival of the Imperial rescript, he obviously needed to neutralize some of its nuances to avoid a public backlash,” Tsujita said.

“The translation paints a completely different picture of the edict than what it really was.”

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