Providing a Cabinet-approved formal response to a question posed by an opposition lawmaker, the Abe administration says to the effect that it is permissible to use the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890 — an officially invalidated document — as a teaching material in school classes as long as the way it is used does not contravene the Constitution and the Fundamental Law of Education. Given its content and the historical role it played, the rescript should not be used in moral education. Its use by schools should be limited to history classes, and teachers need to make sure the document will be taught in its entirety, in context and from critical viewpoints.

It is worrying that some members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet endorse the rescript in one way or another and that the administration appears reluctant to set a concrete standard on the conditions under which the document can be used in classrooms.

The 315-word text was issued in the name of Emperor Meiji in October 1890, following the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in February the previous year, to articulate the guiding principles of education of subjects of the Great Japanese Empire. It served as an indoctrination vehicle to strengthen the Japanese national polity founded on close bonds between emperors and their loyal subjects.

Its main part is a list of virtues that subjects of emperors must cultivate. The key virtues were chu (loyalty), ko (filial piety) and the readiness to dedicate oneself to support the Imperial house. Until Japan’s surrender in World War II, elementary schools played a crucial role in making the spirit of the text take hold in the minds of Japanese citizens. Schoolchildren were told to study and memorize the text through teaching in moral education, Japanese and history classes.

Certified copies of the text were usually kept in specially built small structure on school compounds together with photographs of the reigning emperor and empress. At the four major annual school ceremonies — New Year’s Day, Empire Day on Feb. 11, the Emperor’s Birthday (on April 29 in the Showa Era) and Emperor Meiji’s Birthday on Nov. 3 — teachers and students bowed toward the photographs of the emperor and empress and school principles read the rescript with grave reverence.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed that the government has no intention of actively promoting use of the rescript in classes. He maintained the Cabinet’s position that it is wrong to treat the rescript as “the sole foundation of education.” But Suga opposes rejecting virtues mentioned by the rescript, such as filial piety, familial love among siblings and trusting relationships among friends — which he terms as universal values. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada holds a similar view of the rescript.

Both Suga and Inada miss an important point about the rescript. The document has a structure in which the emperor orders his subjects to cultivate particular virtues. This runs counter to the principle of modern democracy as declared by the postwar Constitution, which proclaims that “sovereign power rests with the people.”

In concluding the list of virtues, the rescript says in effect that if an exigency happens, an emperor’s subjects should summon up their courage and dedicate their lives so that the Imperial house will be able to last forever. Clearly the rescript’s ultimate purpose was to make subjects’ respect and loyalty for emperors absolute — the antithesis of the postwar Constitution’s provisions for emperors, which accord to them the status of “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” not a sovereign.

The rescript also helped create people who blindly followed the Imperial Japanese state’s path of war. Its basic spirit is incompatible with today’s Constitution as well as the Fundamental Law of Education, which stresses the importance of the dignity and autonomy of individuals — even after its revision in 2006 during Abe’s first stint as prime minister.

In view of the basic character of the rescript, both houses of the Diet passed resolutions in June 1948 either rejecting it or confirming it as invalid. Lawmakers who endorse the rescript should think seriously about why both chambers adopted such resolutions.

Despite its obvious incongruities with the values that are cherished in postwar Japan, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno says the government will leave it up to individual schools and teachers how to use the rescript in the classroom. This fails to dispel suspicions about how the document that embodied the spiritual backbone of Imperial Japan will be taught to children.

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