Professor Yuki Honda, a sociologist at University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Education, is concerned about the rise of state-sponsored authoritarianism within Japan’s compulsory education system. Patriotism is taught under the current National Curriculum. A revised National Curriculum, to be rolled out over the next few years, will put schoolchildren under even greater pressure to contribute to the nation in ways not seen since World War II and before. “The objective is not to realize student potential, but to exploit people to make Japan great again,” Honda says.
Honda worries Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revive the spirit of the Imperial Rescript on Education. The Imperial Rescript is a 315-word education edict issued by Emperor Meiji in 1890 to help unify the then-diverse peoples of Japan. Memorized by students, it promoted loyalty, filial piety and patriotism among schoolchildren. “Should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth,” it advises. Imperial-war leaders co-opted the mantra to marshal youth toward the militarism of World War II.
Drawing a picture of three concentric rings, Honda points to a bulls-eye ultranationalist core representing perhaps 10 to 20 percent of all schools in Japan. Some regions are especially nationalistic — Yokohama City, for example. A wider authoritarian band encompasses perhaps another 20 to 30 percent of all schools. “Totalitarianism is a common feature of Japanese school education,” she says.
Examples of totalitarianism are “black” sports school clubs, which subject students to daily harsh treatment. Arguably 50 percent of junior high school sports clubs have some “black” features, because sessions are too frequent (every day, including Saturday and Sunday). Some teachers physically punish students. Teachers and students cannot stop the practice because of pressure to win tournaments.
The Mainichi recently reported that “black” school rules have reached a 40-year peak. Some schools forbid students from shaving their eyebrows and regulate the color of their underwear. “The problem is that even schools which do not have totalitarian characteristics have strict rules,” explains Honda, pointing to the third and widest band.
One reason for strict discipline is to maintain control over large classes. Within OECD countries, Japanese schools have among the largest sized classes. “There are [up to] 30–40 students in each class,” Honda notes, a number that has not changed much in the postwar era.
“Teachers do not like students who act differently,” Honda says, because there are too many in each class to treat individually. Students who deviate by displaying personal character in classrooms are disciplined.
Another reason for strict discipline is pressure on students to score well on entrance exams. Competition to enter a top school dramatically increased after World War II, as the number of university applicants soared. In 1953, only half of all students attended high school and 10 percent entered university. Today, almost all students attend high school and 60 percent enter university. Demand for a seat at a top institution far outstrips supply.
Liberal educators say school discipline is encouraged by far-right policymakers, who have gained the upper hand in a 70-year tussle to control the educational curriculum. The following account of the historical development of nationalism in Japan’s compulsory education system is based on a conversation with Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.
After Japan’s surrender in 1945, U.S. occupying authorities suppressed nationalism in schools. The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) wanted to inoculate Japan against a revival of militarism. SCAP disbanded the military and introduced a democratic constitution, Article 9 of which barred Japan from fighting wars and maintaining armed forces. They replaced the Imperial Rescript on Education, also banned from being read in schools, with a democratically based Fundamental Law of Education. They also introduced a new school textbook vetting system.
Far-right nationalists regained some lost ground after the Korean War ended in 1953, by which time the U.S. occupation forces had already left Japan. The minister of education prevented textbooks from mentioning the Nanjing massacres, for example. In a series of high-profile court cases in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a liberal historian named Ienaga Saburo challenged the constitutionality of the textbook vetting system. Saburo argued the Ministry was wrongly rewriting textbooks to conform to official views, which he believed did not match historical records. He lost most cases, but eventually the Supreme Court ruled the Ministry had unconstitutionally censored textbooks.
Following Emperor Hirohito’s death in 1989, the government more frankly recognized Japan’s wartime past. Soldiers began releasing their diaries. “Comfort women” came forward to voice their suffering. The Japanese government published the Kono Statement in 1993, acknowledging it had forced women to work in military-run brothels during the war. Policymakers promised to make atonements. They rewrote textbooks to more accurately reflect Japan’s wartime history.
A nationalist backlash ensued. The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform published a patriotic national history textbook titled Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho. Only a few junior high schools taught with the text. But a 2001 edition aimed at the public sold widely and drew huge media attention. Since then, wartime history textbooks have been increasingly sanitized.
“In 1997 all mainstream textbooks mentioned ‘comfort women’. By 2017 none of them did,” reports Kingston.
During his first term in office in 2007, Abe and his cabinet (many of whom belong to the nationalist organization Nippon Kaigi) changed the Fundamental Law of Education to require that schools instill patriotism in the classroom. As well as gaining basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, students must learn to love their country. Recently introduced guidelines require that school textbooks conform to official views. Disputed territories (e.g. the Senkaku Islands) for example, must be called by their Japanese names. Beginning this month, moral education will be added to the regular curriculum in elementary and junior high schools.
Expect the next revised National Curriculum, to be rolled out starting in 2019, to be even more nationalistic.
Richard Solomon is an author, publisher and spokesman on contemporary Japan. He posts regular Beacon Reports, which can be viewed here.