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Commentary (December 8, 2006)

Nationalism in Japan's Schools - The Battle for Young Minds

Kevin Rafferty (Author of "Inside Japan's Powerhouses")

Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has kept a low international profile since taking over from the flamboyant Junichiro Koizumi. But domestically, he has already flown his dangerously nationalistic colours in the shape of a new, "patriotic" education law.

The combined opposition - the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the People's New Party - demanded more time to deliberate the bill. The government refused. So the opposition boycotted the lower house, and the government rammed the bill through.

The measure, expected to go to the upper house for final approval by the middle of this month, is a dangerous signal to the rest of the world; it's bad for Japan's already rigid education system and for its awareness of the world.

The legislation is an amendment to the 59-year-old Fundamental Law of Education. Controversially, the bill calls for "cultivating an attitude that respects tradition and culture, loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them, while respecting other countries and contributing to international peace and development". The final part of that sentence was the opposition's only achievement in striving for some kind of balance to a mad and bad law.

The bill is full of dangers, not least because the woolly phrases presage political interference. Enjoining patriotism carries distinct echoes of the militarist 1930s, just at a time when nationalists are again feeling their way to a more assertive Japan.

The bill panders to the ignorance of politicians and imposes new conditions on a highly flawed education system that is already hidebound, values conformity rather than independent thinking, is governed by rote rather than reason and is ignorant of the rest of the world.

At kindergarten and early primary levels, the system puts an emphasis on nurturing and caring. But in their late primary and junior high-school years, children enter a hothouse that emphasises success in examinations, testing the ability to regurgitate knowledge rather than a well-rounded education.

Japanese children going to high school look as neat as peas from the same pod. But appearances can be deceptive. The system is deeply flawed, especially for students who stand out in any way. So-called haafu - children who are only half-Japanese - or youngsters who have been schooled for long periods outside Japan, have been prime candidates for bullying. This year has seen a spate of pre-teen and teenage suicides, which in most cases is a response to unendurable bullying.

Politicians have already intervened to insist that schools should raise the national flag and sing the anthem at ceremonial occasions, which has upset teachers. Several of them in Tokyo who refused to stand or sing found themselves forced to take a two-hour "special retraining course", were lectured on their mistaken ways and ordered to write self-examinations. In other areas, teachers were assessed on how heartily they sang the anthem.

The nationalist march now continues with the education bill, which has Mr Abe's personal stamp of approval. He said Japan's education system "has not sufficiently addressed ideas such as moral values, ethics and self-discipline". He and fellow conservatives have long argued that students should learn national pride as Japan assumes a more active diplomatic and military role on the international stage.

A panel is about to propose that Japanese teachers must renew their licences from time to time. Supporters of the measure say it will see good teachers rewarded with higher pay; opponents argue that it is just another layer of political control.

There is also a proposal afoot to scrap high schools' boards of education - which consist of intellectuals, university dons and other experts on academic subjects - and place these schools under direct political control.

What is worrying is not just the education bill and the other measures to bring teachers under control, but the way they are being forced through.

In the past few weeks, there have been admissions that the government has paid supporters to ask questions at town meetings and to pre-empt the discussion of opposing points of view.

The saving grace may be that Japan's already strained education system won't be able to cope with the changes.

Schools have admitted that they have neglected to teach required subjects because they are too busy cramming students for examinations. Many teachers do not like the heavy hand of the state. And students themselves have shown a resistance to excessive conformity.

It is understandable that politicians are concerned about the inculcation of values and standards. But this may reflect an eternal problem of the perceptions of those growing old: the Roman poet Horace made similar laments about the unruliness of the younger generation some 2,000 years ago.

Mr Abe and his supporters might serve the country better by asking whether their brand of nationalism really serves Japan. A good nationalist should be prepared to look both in the mirror and out of the window.

The nationalists' failure to acknowledge honestly Japan's relationships with Asia, especially China, both in the past and today, means that they are peddling a dangerous patriotism to their students. It will ultimately be most dangerous for the upcoming Japanese generation, since the nation has only 120 million people in a continent of 3 billion.

(Originally appeared in the December 6, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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