The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is enacting another one of the conservatives’ long-standing policy desires by reintroducing moral education in secondary schools from 2018.
This has sparked a liberal backlash because moral education is associated with wartime Japan’s nationalist hysteria and thought-control policies. Back then, moral education instilled devotion to the Emperor, deference to the state and sacrifice for the nation, and was thus key in facilitating militarists’ ambitions.
Contemporary advocacy of moral education is associated with concerns among conservatives that very few young Japanese express a willingness to die for the nation. Apparently, the Constitution, postwar pacifism and freedom of thought have robbed Japan of its warrior spirit and handicapped it with a “patriotic deficit.” So back in 1999, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi passed laws designating “Kimigayo” as the national anthem and the Hinomaru as the national flag. Subsequently, the government has forced teachers to stand facing the flag while singing the national anthem, inciting many teachers to become conscientious objectors. The government has persecuted these “refuseniks” in the courts and some local governments have hounded them out of their jobs. While singing the national anthem and facing the flag might seem innocuous, to the objectors it is a matter of principle since “Kimigayo” is a paean to the Emperor reminiscent of wartime Japan and contravenes their constitutional rights.
Public anxieties about a recrudescence of patriotic fervor fueled by moral education may well be excessive, but one powerful reason is the education ministry’s plan to write the text for this course. Since 1958, moral education has been taught informally without textbooks and grading, relying on the discretion of teachers. But now, rather than independent scholars writing moral education texts for private sector publishers subject to government vetting, the ministry is reviving its wartime monopoly over textbooks when it imposed a uniform ideology.
On the face of it, moral education could be a positive thing. Abe’s penchant for patriotic instruction would likely rob it of that potential and subsequently stifle critical thinking, but instilling deeper understanding of rich traditions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, might have positive benefits. It might lead to helping students better understand their extensive cultural connections with China, a neighbor now mostly portrayed as menacing. Moreover, understanding the authoritarian implications of Confucianism would provide an invaluable contrast to contemporary democratic principles.
Similarly, it would be instructive for students to study the transmogrification of Shinto based on harmony with nature and quiet contemplation into the shrilly, nationalistic state Shinto that served to whip up popular support for Japanese militarism. Yet the odds are that the education ministry will not nurture such critical thinking and will instead try to brainwash Japan’s youth with nationalist pabulum.
However, if moral education could include a significant discussion of ethics, then Japan might benefit. Surveying the low level of ethics that prevails among politicians and corporate Japan — evident in an endless cascade of scandals — clearly there is a need for instilling a moral compass in those who are leading the nation. The very limited accountability for the powerful in Japan is an unsightly blemish.
Take for example the varlets of Tepco, who did their best to shirk responsibility for the nuclear calamity they visited upon the country. What message do young people receive seeing these scoundrels wriggle out of responsibility and avoiding consequences for their negligent actions? And what about all the utilities admitting they falsified repair and maintenance records for their nuclear reactors without any harsh consequences for the individuals responsible for such misdeeds? What about construction firms falsifying data that raise legitimate concerns about the safety of housing units that also constitute the biggest investment that any household will ever make? The corporate shenanigans of Olympus, Toyo, Takata and Toshiba — to name but a few recent egregious examples — also suggest that there is something deeply wrong with Japan, Inc.
Of course, many people assume that most politicians are shameless reprobates deserving of public scorn and are thus increasingly turned off and tuning out. Indeed, the voting participation rate has slipped to barely half of eligible voters. Even though the Supreme Court keeps finding that Japan’s electoral system is in a state of unconstitutionality because it makes a mockery of proportional representation by allowing huge disparities in the value of votes that favor rural constituencies, lawmakers continue to avoid addressing the substantive changes that need to happen to fix it. So the recent security legislation that overturns Japan’s postwar pacifist order was rammed through the Diet by a government that lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the highest court of the land. Sadly, the Supreme Court lacks the moral backbone to nullify the results.
And what of Abe and his support for revisionist history? Is there any moral dignity in downplaying, denying and obfuscating Japan’s wartime misdeeds? There is a risk that the new moral education will be part of larger plans to impose a state-sponsored, exonerating and glorifying narrative of Japan’s colonial and wartime actions. Abe has long campaigned against “masochistic” history and is eager to instill pride in the nation by imposing a positive narrative of Japan’s shared history with Asia, but such patriotic zeal is stoking intolerance toward those who challenge this chicanery.
I applaud the recent petition drive by Japanese scholars in support of professor Park Yu-ha who has been indicted by the South Korean government for challenging the orthodoxy about “comfort women,” but I wonder why these same scholars didn’t mount similar campaigns about the gathering forces of darkness in Japan. Perhaps I missed their petitions against the xenophobic harassment of ethnic Koreans; Abe’s cheerleading of the witch hunt that targeted the Asahi Shimbun, and the death threats made against journalist Takashi Uemura for a few essays on the comfort women written 20 years ago; Team Abe’s campaign to discredit the 1993 Kono statement about the comfort women; the excessive government intervention in textbook content that forces publishers to conform with official guidelines; and the recent vilification of UNESCO because it accepted China’s submission on the Nanjing Massacre. And, why have they been silent about the Sankei Shimbun’s slandering of U.S. academic Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, for speaking truth to power about the fraudulence of historical revisionism and dangers of self-righteous nationalism?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, reflecting recently on the malicious mendacity and stifling hypocrisy prevailing in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, argues in the Indian Express: “True patriotism requires the possibility that you are able to say, as an act of civic identification, that I am ashamed of my country in certain respects. A patriot who thinks we should never be ashamed of our country is a charlatan with no moral compass.”
This is a lesson worth teaching in Abe’s Japan.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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