The Imperial Rescript on Education, a short founding document of modern Japanese nationalism first issued to Japan’s schools by the Education Ministry in 1890 and banned from official use in 1948, has been in the news lately. There has been a scandal over Osaka school operator Moritomo Gakuen’s questionable dealings with government officials to get a sweetheart deal on state land for a new school. There were shocking revelations about the anti-Chinese and anti-Korean xenophobia of the operators. But much of the Japanese media and public was also dismayed at televised footage of little children reciting the rescript in the operators’ kindergarten.

Yet for conservative nationalists like Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, the reaction to the latter revelation was “what’s so bad about the Imperial Rescript anyway?” While liberal newspapers have underlined its affiliations with the pre-1945 emperor-centered State Shintoism, it is also a strikingly Confucian document. Emperor Meiji exhorts his subjects to practice the morality associated with the “five human relations” of the ancient Confucian text the “Mencius”: to be filial to parents, affectionate to siblings, true to friends, harmonious as spouses and so forth. And the Emperor speaks of his subjects “ever united in filial piety and loyalty,” two cardinal Confucian virtues.

Conservatives have affirmed these homely moral elements of the rescript, arguing that the “spirit of the rescript” merely aims to make Japan a moral, not a war-mongering nation. Why shouldn’t schools have their kids recite it today? To understand why they shouldn’t, we need to consider some nationalist ideologies which swept it into a growing vortex of hyper-nationalism and imperialism in the decades after it was promulgated.

The rescript was written by modernizing bureaucrats like Kowashi Inoue, who had a combined educational background in the old Confucian academies and in constitutional law in European universities. This hybrid education enabled them to retool older Japanese Confucian and nativist philosophies for a new statist, nationalist ideal of Japan. One idea they inherited and repurposed from earlier Japanese thinkers was of the kokutai, or “national polity”.

The idea of the kokutai was originally developed by Mito Academy scholars in the early 19th century. They formulated it in response to a dimly perceived nationalism in the European great powers, which seemingly enabled them to unify their subjects in campaigns for mercantile and military expansion into Asia. Fearing Japan was endangered, Mito scholars like Aizawa Seishisai tried to envisage a counter-doctrine that would unite Japan’s subjects under its emperor.

Reinterpreting old Shinto myths of an unbroken, single line of emperors stretching back to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the Mito scholars wrote of how Japan could be united in loyalty and filial piety through rites-based veneration for ancestors and for the emperor. In such rites the emperor filially venerates his ancestors and the Sun Goddess herself, and the people filially venerate their ancestors, who had themselves loyally served and venerated the emperor’s ancestors. The kokutai was a ritual-political order in which the people united in filial piety and loyalty under the emperor without the need for force.

The Meiji writers of the rescript and of Japan’s first modern constitution availed themselves of some of these ideas, now put at the service of a modern concept of the Japanese state, being united and fortified by transformations the Mito School scholars barely dreamed of: industrialization, mass literacy and the military levee en masse, with young men educated to “offer themselves courageously for the state” in time of emergency.
The rescript refers reverentially to the emperor’s “Imperial Ancestors,” and the Meiji Constitution, also enacted in 1890, invokes the sacredness of the emperor and his ancestors, comprising the “line of emperors, unbroken for ages eternal”.

This all looks conservative and weirdly mythical, but it need not have led to fascism. There were in the early 20th century Japanese liberals and constitutional scholars who treated this kokutai mumbo-jumbo like an eccentric and smelly great-uncle at family reunions — something to be acknowledged politely, tip-toed around and then ignored, as they argued that the emperor was, anyway, a figurehead, his powers symbolic, and that the rule of law and civilian governance were supreme in the kokutai.

Unfortunately, they didn’t get their way. To understand why, we need to introduce another Meiji era intellectual largely forgotten today, but who towered over early 20th century Japanese scholarly and educational life: Tetsujiro Inoue, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

Like some statesmen of his time, he acquired from his European philosophical studies a taste for statist nationalism and an aversion to individualism and liberal democracy. Inoue was a competent scholar and a very able propagandist. In 1891, under the direction of the Education Ministry he wrote a highly influential school textbook commentary for the Imperial Rescript on Education and he would write much more on behalf of the ministry in coming decades.

Inoue helped rally public opinion against dissenters who “endangered the kokutai”: a Christian school teacher who did not bow before a copy of the rescript in a school ceremony in 1890, or historians who publicly questioned the veracity of the “eternal, unbroken imperial line”, intimidating them into silence.

He helped theorize a “national morality” unique to Japan, which the rescript supposedly expressed in compressed form. This national morality was cobbled together from his notions of an indigenous bushido morality, a Japanized Confucianism, Buddhism and German philosophical ideas of “national spirit” or “volksgeist.”

This morality conceived of the Japanese people as so many families united in a great family sharing the same blood and ethnicity, presided over by the emperor and his unbroken Imperial line; in this great family filial piety and loyalty were unified in a way that was found in no other country — including China.

Ideas like this would go on to become the common sense of the more extreme nationalism and imperialism that prevailed in the 1930s, though an elderly Inoue was happy to cheer it on. Japan’s superior, unique national morality was believed to entitle it to a position of moral leadership over other Asian countries, against the West. As Japanese armies rampaged through China Inoue asserted that Japan’s moral mission there was to help the Chinese recover their true national morality — Confucianism — under Japanese tutelage.

Naturally, these ideas all came crashing down in 1945, a year after Inoue’s death. In an era of growing blood and soil nationalism we may have something to fear from Japanese nationalists promoting a revival of the Imperial Rescript on Education. Yet thankfully, unlike their charismatic counterparts in Europe, America or India, Japan’s atavistic nationalists remain singularly clueless, incompetent and weird.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Languages and Cultures, Kyushu University, and is completing a book on the prospects for modern Confucianism.

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