Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Japan revises ties to past

Proposed changes to a law governing the basic aims of education could be dangerous, say some critics fearful of nationalism and militarism


Patriotism isn't a dirty word in Japan.

But six decades after the nation's defeat in World War II, the concept is still a touchy topic -- especially when it comes to what to teach in the nation's schools.

Conservative politicians are nearing their goal of revising a law on the basic aims of education in what would be the first changes since its enactment during the US-led Occupation.

A panel of experts in March urged changing the 1947 law, which aimed to eradicate concepts conducive to militarism and cultivate democracy, to add ideals such as "respect for Japanese tradition and culture" and "love of country and hometown".

The proposals are a far cry from the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which exhorted students to cultivate Confucian virtues such as filial piety for the glory of a divine emperor.

Pupils had to memorize the 315-line edict until 1945.

Still, critics say the changes carry a risky echo of the nationalistic education that underpinned Japanese militarism.

"I think the revisions would be very dangerous ... and would increase the political control of education," said Hidenori Fujita, a professor at International Christian University and a member of the National Commission on Education Reform in 2000.

In a sign of the sensitivities at play, the panel opted for the phrase "love of country" instead of "patriotism", a distinction people elsewhere probably find perplexing.

"Why is the issue so emotive here? It has everything to do with the way things evolved after World War II," said Samuel Shepherd, executive director of the Fulbright Commission in Tokyo.

"I don't feel that there was a proper digestion of the whole war experience," said Shepherd, a former member of an advisory panel to the Education Ministry. "So you have ... great discomfort with anything to do with `love of country' by some groups and the other extreme that identifies strongly with `love of country.'"

Unlike Germany, where school lessons drill the horrors of the Nazi past, Japan has long had trouble grappling with its wartime history and misdeeds, both inside the classroom and out.

Rows have erupted with China and South Korea over textbooks which critics say whitewash Japan's military aggression, as well as over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are honored along with war dead.

Advocates say reform of the education law is overdue.

"There's nothing wrong with the current Fundamental Law on Education, but is it Japan's? It could be a law for any country," said Taro Aso, policy chief for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and an advocate of the revisions.

"The Japanese education law was written during the extreme situation of the Occupation. But it's been 57 years since the end of the war and in that 57 years has Japanese education got better? I don't think anyone would say that," Aso said.

Critics of the proposals agree Japan's long-admired education system has lots of faults. Academic ability is declining, discipline eroding and the number of dropouts is increasing.

But teaching patriotism, they say, isn't the solution.

"Since the 1980s there have been problems in the schools," said Kyoto Women's University professor Masaaki Noda. "But these are problems of the whole education system, which doesn't give children goals. They are trying to fill the gap with patriotism."

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