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.

Nothing in the current guidelines — at least, not much — echoes that exhortation. Children are to be encouraged “to maintain safety and secure good health; to develop self-reliance; to observe good manners; to keep (themselves) neat; to improve the environment; to use things and money effectively; to recognize the value of time.” Honesty, sincerity, courage, courtesy, justice, respect for others, self-control and unselfishness are the virtues to be fostered. And this: “to love one’s family; to love one’s school; to love the nation with pride as a Japanese.”

How to grade a child’s “love for the nation with pride as a Japanese?” That’s a moral problem in itself.

Postwar moral education was gradeless. Lessons were informal; content was left up to teachers; the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education kept government on the sidelines. A 2006 revision to that law, passed under the first administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, opened new possibilities. Its call for the cultivation of “an attitude that respects tradition and culture and love of the national homeland” first raised the question: Is the government moving back into the classroom? And its corollary: Will children be graded for patriotism?

Two episodes in that connection surfaced a year ago. The darker of them involves Moritomo Gakuen. Its ongoing unfolding has stressed the suspiciously cheap sale of government land to the Osaka-based school operator. All but forgotten now is the scandal’s initial stirring as a pedagogical issue: 4-year-old nursery school children reciting patriotic slogans to a beaming distinguished visitor — Akie Abe, the prime minister’s wife and designated honorary principal of a Moritomo-run elementary school that was about to open (it never did) under the name “Abe Shinzo Memorial School.”

The second episode, concerning the government screening of textbooks for moral education, has its funny side. The course’s new formal status means its textbooks must be government-approved. One book submitted for approval mentioned children stopping at a panya (bakery) on the way home from school. The education ministry balked. Is pan (bread) Japanese? If not, can panya be? Does “panya” foster “an attitude that respects tradition and culture and love of the national homeland”? Change “panya,” the ministry ordered, to “wagashiya” (Japanese cake shop). The publisher complied. The Mainichi Shimbun at the time reported a torrent of online indignation, especially from bakers, one of whom, using an expression with sinister prewar militarist overtones, snapped, “Are bakers hikokumin (un-Japanese)?”

Moritomo Gakuen is one of several currently unfolding scandals implicating the government in cronyism, lying, cover-up and the secret sanitizing of official documents before their release to the public. Collectively the scandals raise the question of whether an immoral government is qualified to oversee the teaching of morality. (Would a child raising it in class be graded up for courage, or down for flawed love of the nation?)

The fearless and vigorous questioning of authority — arguably the greatest democratic virtue of them all — may be what the ministry has in mind with the phrase “to love justice and be courageous.” The performance by the Moritomo Gakuen 4-year-olds, together with the toughening under Abe of a law protecting vaguely defined “state secrets” from journalists and whistle-blowers, makes it difficult to assume so, however.

Good manners — a decidedly lower-key virtue — seem to come easily to the Japanese. In April 2017, the Asahi Shimbun, conducting an informal survey among its readers, found 47 percent say they bow when talking on the phone. “Even if the other party can’t see me,” said one woman who worked at a call center, “it seems a natural extension of the education we receive in manners pertaining to customer relations.”

Manners are important. So, on the other hand, is frankness. The proper balance between the two is a moral issue — the more so in a society as competitive as Japan’s. Shukan Josei magazine is alarmed to see significant numbers of elementary school children suffering symptoms usually associated with old age: backaches, stiff shoulders, thinning hair, dimming vision. Competition takes its toll. Children compete for grades, friends, attention from increasingly preoccupied parents, attention from increasingly stressed teachers. The ubiquitous smartphone pulls them one way — forward; their randoseru school bags, heavy with an increasing load of textbooks reflecting an increasingly demanding curriculum, drags them the other way — backward. It plays hell with the posture.

Eyes are vulnerable too, Shukan Josei hears from ophthalmologist Sachi Amaki. Indoor play, smartphone screens, school lessons, after-school lessons, homework, all take their toll. Amaki laments the passing of the good old pastimes of the good old days — playing catch, for instance: “You look far when you throw, near when you catch. It makes for a good balance” — not to mention exercise, fresh air, unstressed friendship, all smacking of the lost innocence of moral education unfolding on the playground, rather than as one subject among many, many, in the classroom, under watchful government eyes.

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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