Human beings are born amoral. Infants know no rules, and obey none. They learn a few at home, then go to school and learn more. Everyone agrees rules are necessary. On what the rules should be there is less agreement; less still on the degree of obedience rules call for. There are times and places where anything short of total obedience can get you into trouble. But staying out of trouble isn’t always moral. Sometimes it’s immoral.

Sometimes it’s against nature. Consider the pumpkin. Pumpkins grow on vines. Vines stretch. No boundary line can stop them. Once upon a time there was a pumpkin whose vine stretched beyond the bounds of the field in which it had been planted. Adjacent to the field was a road. Along the road cars passed. Splat went the pumpkin. The moral of the story?

Stay within bounds. Yes, but, said veteran elementary school science teacher Masaki Kosano in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun last month, it’s a vine’s nature to grow. It couldn’t help itself. What was it to do?

The conundrum arises in connection with moral education, due to join the regular elementary and junior high school curriculum next April. Currently it’s not a “subject”; it’s an “activity.” As a subject, it will be taught with government-approved textbooks and graded, as it is not now.

Kosano, a former director of the Science Education Research Council, is involved with a citizens’ group that is scrutinizing — skeptically, it would seem — the textbooks being submitted for government approval. The pumpkin story is in one of them.

Supposing a child who knows something about the nature of pumpkins raises his or her hand and, in effect, thrusts a spanner into the works, overthrows the system, justifies the pumpkin. What then? It will depend on the teacher — who will either delight in the child’s rebellion and grade him or her accordingly, or else deplore the child’s rebellion and, again, grade him or her accordingly, perhaps damaging his or her future prospects, almost certainly nipping future rebellions in the bud.

“Moral education” sounds innocuous but has an ominous history. The prewar moral education system enjoined obedience to authority and self-sacrifice, when authority deemed it necessary, for a sacred Emperor ruling a divine nation. The U.S.-led Allied Occupation judged this fanatic and militaristic and abolished it. Its restoration now is justified as a response to rising school bullying, a noxious form of juvenile amorality that seems to call for a moral adult response. But the deeply conservative nature of the government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe alarms liberals. What’s the ulterior motive, they wonder — a revival of prewar patriotism in benign disguise?

The Asahi discussion of the issue, of which Kosano’s observations form part, focuses less on the sinister subtext than on suspicions the education ministry bureaucrats plotting the guidelines and approving the textbooks lack a proper appreciation of the complexity of moral problems. Yosuke Tsuchiya, who teaches introductory philosophy to junior and senior high school students, sees in the ministry guidelines an emphasis on “obeying rules,” “sincerity,” “family love” and the like — leaving students, he fears, “not much room to voice doubts.” Moral education, for example, would teach children not to lie. The philosophical approach Tsuchiya favors would pose the question, “Is lying always wrong?” — and let the kids take it from there.

Questioning versus obedience. Which is more “moral”? Those who answer obedience argue that children must first be taught to obey, afterward to question. The war years furnish evidence for at least one counterargument: obedience gets to be a habit and authority, unquestioned, runs amok.

A moral education that teaches pumpkin vines not to grow is doomed to sterility. It either stifles growth, or turns growth into defiance. Tsuchiya proposes a radical question: “What are rules for in the first place?” He’s not saying rules aren’t necessary, only implying that in a growing society populated by growing individuals, everything should be open to question. The least moral society is that which stifles questions, the least moral individual he or she who poses none.

Nothing apparent in the formative stages of the moral education program so far suggests any awareness that changing and uncertain times call for, and call forth, changing moral values. Love of one’s country once seemed unassailable, and Abe proudly calls himself a patriot. But in a globalized world, what should we be citizens of first — our country, or the world?

If the former — why? Our shared humanity would seem to favor the global identification. In which case, what serious teacher of moral education could refrain from having his or her students morally question, for example, Japan’s acceptance in 2016 of a mere 28 refugees at a time when, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been displaced by conflict or persecution? Japan’s doors are so tightly shut compared to other developed countries — Britain granted asylum to 9,975 refugees that year; the U.S., to 84,994 — as to constitute something of a national embarrassment.

There is an answer, of course — there always is, which is the point. Terrorism, rife in many open-door societies, is rare in closed-door ones such as Japan. Governments have a moral duty to protect their citizens from terrorism — even, arguably, from the mere fear of terrorism; ergo, perhaps, a moral duty to bar the gates.

The refugee situation as covered lately in Japan has focused on Syrians and Afghans fleeing appalling conditions at home in such numbers as to threaten Europe’s stability. Geography and government policy place Japan far from all that, but complacency is “numbness,” says Sapio magazine, which asks in effect, What if North Korea either erupts or implodes? The danger is twofold: a regime boasting its own form of moral education either launches a self-righteous war, possibly nuclear, or else collapses from its own inner rot, swamping Japan in either case with refugees — 220,000 from South Korea, 55,000 from the North, according to one projection the magazine cites.

Among the possibilities Sapio considers are the presence of terrorists among the refugees, and the necessary involvement of the Self-Defense Forces in keeping order, their preoccupation increasing Japan’s vulnerability to outside threat. What would, could or should Japan do in such a case? Obey the rules? What rules?

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

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