How can people be taught to be good? What does "good" mean? "Moral education," the education ministry explains on its website, "aims to develop a Japanese citizen who will never lose the consistent spirit of respect for his fellow man; who will realize this spirit at home, at school and in other actual life situations in the society of which he is a member; who strives for the creation of a culture rich in individuality and for the development of a democratic nation and society; and who is able to make a voluntary contribution to the peaceful international society."

There is little in that sentence a reasonable person can object to. The exclusively masculine pronouns may grate, but they appear only in the English version. An authoritarian may reasonably take issue with "democratic," an anti-individualist with "individuality." But authoritarianism and anti-individualism are fringe views, whose adherents favor democratic language, if only as a cloak. The statement is as uncontroversial as, in all likelihood, it was very carefully crafted to be. And yet "moral education," which this month became an official school subject in elementary schools nationwide — as it will in junior high schools next spring — is by no means uncontroversial.

The prewar precedents are ugly. The Imperial Rescript on Education, promulgated in 1890, exhorted schoolchildren to, "should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the state." This they did, with unquestioning enthusiasm and in vast numbers, in the bellicose decades that followed.