Along with the economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to “revive” the nation’s public school education since he returned to the government’s helm two years ago. As on many other issues on his agenda, he has resorted to a top-down approach on education reforms, many of which involved changing the systems in ways that strengthen the roles of government authorities in public school education.

In January 2013, less than a month after taking office, Abe created what he termed a conference for action on reviving the nation’s education. A panel of experts under his direct auspices was tasked with setting the basic direction on his education-related agenda ranging from introduction of moral education as part of the formal school curriculum to changes to the local board of education system and university entrance exam reforms. The Central Council for Education, an advisory panel to the education minister, worked on specific measures along the direction set by Abe’s conference.

Abe, who during his first stint as prime minister in 2006 revised the Fundamental Law of Education to include teaching children the “love of our country and homeland” among the purposes of education, has retained his passion for the state’s greater involvement in public school policies. One example was the change introduced in January to the education ministry’s guideline for screening of school textbooks to say that references to events in the nation’s modern and contemporary history should reflect the national government’s views and Supreme Court rulings.

Also symbolic of such a direction in the reforms pursued by the prime minister was an overhaul of the municipal and prefectural board of education systems that expanded the powers of the heads of local governments in school education. The system, introduced in the early postwar years, was meant to secure the independence of the boards of education — which hold the final powers over local school administration — based on the lessons of the prior political intervention in education to imbue children with militaristic ideologies.

The revision to the law on local educational administration enacted in June gave local government heads the power to appoint and dismiss board of education chiefs with the consent of their local assemblies. Boards of education continue to exclusively determine textbook choices and appointments of teachers at local schools. However, governors and mayors will now organize conferences with board of education members to discuss important matters concerning local school education, including the adoption of a broad outline of education policies.

In October, the education council recommended making now informal moral education classes at elementary and junior high schools part of the formal school curriculum — another example of Abe’s longtime agenda quickly taking shape under his administration. The council has cited the necessity of beefing up moral education for children in view of the severe problem of bullying at schools. Still, doubts have been raised on how schoolchildren can be appropriately evaluated in moral education and concern lingers that such classes — which could start as early as in 2018 using textbooks written along education ministry guidelines — could result in imposing on children a uniform set of government-favored values.

While debate among parties and lawmakers on education appear low-key in the campaign for Sunday’s Lower House election, voters are urged to reassess the Abe administration’s reform measures and to see what other parties advocate on these and other education-related issues, including measures to ensure children from low-income families have an opportunity to receive higher education.

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