The Abe administration is facing public criticism over the shady discount sale of a government-owned plot of land to the Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen. It is indeed weird that the land was sold to Moritomo Gakuen at a steep discount after earlier bids by other parties, such as the local city government of Toyonaka and other school operators, to buy the plot failed as the state insisted on higher prices.
It is also unnatural that the director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Bureau, upon repeated questioning in the Diet, insists that documentary records of the negotiation with Moritomo Gakuen were destroyed when the land sales contract was concluded — since it is the culture of Japan’s government bureaucracy to keep those kinds of documents.
It’s the job of the Diet and prosecutors to unravel the suspicions about the deal. They need to do it without political considerations. At the same time, this scandal is interesting in relation to politics in that it exposes the quality of the conservative forces in this country. In Japan, the distinction between conservatives and right-wingers is blurry, and no consensus exists over the continuity and rupture of history.
The kindergarten run by Moritomo Gakuen is known for its loyalist-patriotic education — getting its students to recite the Imperial Rescript of Education and having them take part in Self-Defense Force events as a group. Some Liberal Democratic Party politicians and conservative intellectuals have taken a liking to the school for that point, extending support and giving lectures at the kindergarten. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada was such a lawmaker, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife were among its sympathizers.
When the operator planned to open a new elementary school, the Osaka Prefecture, which gives permission for the opening of local schools, promptly gave the plan tentative approval, while the Finance Ministry and the land ministry provided apparent favors in the land deal and provision of subsidies.
Had the suspicions over the discount land deal not come to the surface, next month we would have witnessed the opening of an elementary school that gives children an anachronistic loyalist-patriotic education.
The Imperial Rescript of Education was promulgated during the Meiji Era as a basic ideal in school education. It was a doctrine that negated the independence and diversity of individuals, and taught children to be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the state when they become adults. It was only natural that this rescript has been rejected in postwar Japan, which made it a basic principles that sovereign power rests with the people and that people shall be respected as individuals.
At the same time, there have been nationalists in the LDP who have maintained nostalgic sentiments toward the rescript. Following the departure of politicians who had firsthand experience of prewar education under the rescript, a new generation of lawmakers enchanted with the narrative of patriotic education has risen in numbers within the LDP. For those politicians, advocating revival of the Imperial Rescript of Education and rejecting the postwar democracy system are the two sides of the same coin. Abe, who calls for a departure from the postwar regime, is the leader of such a movement.
While the Moritomo Gakuen issue was becoming a hot political topic, Abe went on a tour over Western Europe, and advocated protecting a “free and open international order” in a speech he gave in Germany, where it is a principle of the state to break away from its past. It is strange that the head of Japan’s LDP-led government, which unlike Germany — Japan’s Axis partner in World War II — maintains an ambiguous continuity with the past, chose that country as a venue to advocate freedom and openness. If Abe intends to be true to his words, he needs to respect freedom and openness at home as well, and pursue education and social policies based on those ideals.
But it may be asking too much to ask such consistency from Abe. He initially called the president of Moritomo Gakuen someone whose ideas on education resonated with his own, but when the suspicions over the land deal came to the surface he began distancing himself, saying he had been annoyed by the operator’s persistent approaches.
Abe is well aware that advocating the Imperial Rescript of Education would not put him in good standing to an international audience. But at home he does not hesitate to reverse the accomplishments of postwar democracy and impose obedience to authorities and uniformity. Such a contradiction is among the key characteristics of conservative politicians in this country.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.
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