Japan struggles over patriotism in education

As in the United States, Japan's teachers (and their union) tend to be far to the left of the public they serve.  Currently, a huge controversy is roiling Japanese education and politics – one that bears comparison to the battles over multiculturalism in our schools.

Of course, multiculturalism per se is not an issue in Japan, a country that is ethnically homogeneous, save for a tiny (1 or 2%) minority of ethnic Koreans, the descendants of laborers brought to Japan in virtual slavery during the period of Japanese colonization of Korea (1895-1945).  Nonetheless, the internationalists among the Japanese are mouthing the same sort of platitudes about diversity, as evidenced by the banner seen below, next to the Olympic Park in Tokyo, where the 1964 Olympic facilities will be used again in 2020, when Tokyo once again hosts the Olympics.  Look closely at the lower right corner:

The current issue dividing educators, bureaucrats, and the public is much more basic and distinctively Japanese: the role of patriotism and the imperial institution in education.

Following Japan's catastrophic defeat in World War 2, patriotism itself was held to be in bad odor, and Japan's "Peace Constitution" renounced the use of military force forever.  It is an open secret that this constitution was written by Occupation authorities and translated into Japanese.  As the Korean War raged barely a hundred miles from Japan in the early 1950s, even the Occupation authorities decided that "self-defense" military force would be okay, an evasion that continues to this day.  Japanese naval vessels are currently part of the USS Carl Vinson strike force that is off Korean waters in response to the escalating nuclear threat of North Korea.

When Japan began its modernization under Emperor Meiji in the last third of the 19th century, it became evident that public education would be necessary for the country to rise to its potential as a leading nation of the world.  Under the slogan of "rich country, strong military" (Fukoku Kyohei), Japan began industrialization and building a modern military.  In 1890, Emperor Meiji issued the "Imperial Rescript on Education," which was read to student assemblies so often that many committed it to memory.  Written in the archaic language reserved for emperors, it listed 12 virtues for students to dedicate themselves to, including the spirit of self-sacrifice for emperor and nation.  This, in turn, formed a basis for demands made on military conscripts, up to and including most famously the kamikaze fighter pilots, who crashed their airplanes into American warships in the late stages of the war.

As a result, when Japanese education was reconstituted under the Occupation, the rescript was expunged from the schools and forbidden by the Ministry of Education, which closely oversees all school curricula, public and private.  Until last month.

Under Prime Minister Abe, who appears to have formed a close personal alliance with President Trump, the Cabinet issued a statement approving the voluntary use of the rescript in education.  The version of the rescript it approved is a modernized version, a "translation" into idiomatic modern Japanese, downplaying the sacrifice of the individual in the name of the emperor and instead praising patriotism (along with filial piety and other virtues).

So far, only a few private schools, including one run by a friend of P.M. Abe, have started reading the rescript to student assemblies.  But this move has sparked powerful resistance and attempts to discredit the schools using it on various pretexts.

While the excesses of patriotism in wartime were disgusting (talk to any South Koreans about Japan, and you will get a well justified earful), does Japan have the right or even responsibility to teach patriotism now?

All of this may seem minor in an era when American public school students seem to be taught to hate our own country and focus exclusively on national sins of slavery and conquest of territory from Native Americans (not to mention sexism, racism, homophobia, and now "transphobia"), but I think it is related to our own struggles against idealization of victims as the sole bearers of virtue.

P.M. Abe seems to share a character trait with President Trump in never giving up against his ideological opponents.  It will be enlightening to see if Japan can embrace patriotism without the undeniable negative aspects of its prewar version.

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