Japan’s basic law on education, enacted after the end of World War II to replace the Imperial Rescript, should be reviewed — that is a key recommendation from Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s advisory panel. The final report, released last week, calls for a set of reforms. The report is in marked contrast to September’s interim report, which struck a cautionary note on the need for a revision.

The final report, as one panelist pointed out, reflects a strong desire on the part of ruling-party politicians to “update” the Fundamental Law of Education. Their immediate objective, he suggests, is to boost public confidence in the current unpopular administration and win next year’s parliamentary elections. That may be part of the reason why the report lacks a detailed analysis of what the law has achieved, or has not achieved, over the past 53 years.

The fact is that the 26-member panel — the National Commission on Educational Reform — remains deeply divided over the nature and direction of revision. That is why the September report called for a national debate — a veiled warning against a hasty review. Yet a final report drafted just a month later clearly stated the need for change, even though no in-depth discussions had been conducted on this issue.

Japan’s postwar education charter has not been revised thus far in any significant way. But blaming the charter for the current chaos in public education is putting the cart before the horse. Article 1, for example, calls for the development of individualist, diligent and independent-minded people as “constituents of a peaceful state and society.” This goal has yet to be achieved; now we must consider the best way to realize it.

It is true, as proponents of a review point out, that Japanese society is afflicted with selfish individualism. But attributing this to a charter that respects the dignity of individuals and emphasizes their duties and responsibilities as “constituents of a peaceful state and society” is far-fetched. The report gives “respect for tradition and culture” as one reason why the law should be revised. But it offers no convincing explanation as to how that will help resolve the education crisis.

The report does include a statement that says revision debates should not be influenced by “nationalistic or totalitarian thinking.” A drafting member, while embracing the need for revision, explains the statement this way: “Just calling for a national debate would give free rein to the Prime Minister’s Office. We need to apply the brakes to the review.” Revisionist politicians and their backers may have ulterior motives.

In fact, a council member pushing for a drastic review reportedly said that “taming, training and correcting (students) is the essential function of schools.” He was also quoted as saying: “Having them study the biographies of their folk heroes and things like that could take the place of the Imperial Rescript on Education.” These provocative remarks, which presumably reflect the thinking of pro-revision politicians, could lead review discussions in a dangerous direction.

It is also disturbing that the report, in stressing the importance of volunteer activity, repeatedly emphasizes the “ideas of sacrifice and devotion.” Considering Mr. Mori’s fondness for phrases like “messhi hoko” (unselfish devotion to the country) and “kami no kuni” (nation of gods), it is not difficult to surmise what politicians are trying to achieve by amending the basic education law. Simply put, their aim could be to educate children by compulsion — the very opposite of an approach designed to encourage free thinking and independent judgment.

Individuals are going to play a greater role in the knowledge society of the 21st century. Increasingly, this nation — like any nation with a stake in the evolving information age — will need “people full of independent spirit” (the phrase used in the education charter), and not people who listen obediently to voices from above.

The Education Ministry, responding to the wishes of the prime minister’s inner circle, is preparing for a major revision. Education Minister Nobutaka Machimura has made it clear that the ministry will draft a rough revision plan for consideration by the Central Council for Education. The message, as he puts it, is loud and clear: “We would like to rewrite it (the charter) from scratch.”

However, legislative change is no cure for the deep-seated ills that plague the nation’s public-school system. The fundamental problem is that postwar education in this nation has failed to effectively address the worries and sufferings of students and parents. Indeed, history tells us that a politically motivated rush to rewrite the ground rules for education can do more harm than good. The lesson is obvious: Politicians had better distance themselves from education problems.

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.