Glancing at today’s top stories at The Japan Times, I am struck by how thematically linked many of them are. Now, of course it is a slow-news Sunday with few actual current events to report on, which leads the news people to slot the historical stories into the front page, but we can still see an interesting congruence of themes in four of today’s top stories.
The big story is that the New ‘patriotism’ education law takes effect. All readers of this blog already know that this law has been in the news for some time, it has been debated by everyone, protested against by citizens groups, teachers unions, parents and students, and contested by a coalition of the DPJ and other minor opposition political parties, who in the end failed to stop its passage by the eternally ruling LDP. While I haven’t read the actual text of the law [available here] yet (which I really should do soon), we do all know that the controversy stems from one particular section of the comprehensive education law-containing many provisions on reforms generally accepted as necessary-in which it states that “an attitude that respects tradition and culture and loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them” should be promoted by throughout compulsory education, which incidentally I believe has also been extended to include high school for the first time, in one of the less politically charged provisions of the law.
This rather innocuous sounding passage sounds like part of the basic curriculum of lower education in pretty much any country, and one could argue does not even sound any different from what is already taught in classrooms throughout Japan, but many people think of the recent case of teachers being disciplined for not singing the national anthem and feel a worry that the actual implementation of these newly mandatory provisions is another stage in the resuscitation of a particular pre-war style of nationalism. In reality, the debate is not over whether patriotism and shared national values should be taught to children, but what meaning that patriotism has, and what those values are.
The worry among the opposition camp is that the official patriotism will be a doctrine of subservience to the state, which could someday lead to a return to the military days of the past. The fact that the education law was passed in the same parliamentary session as the bill elevating the head of the Self Defense Forces to a cabinet level minister does not appear to them to be a coincidence. But the opposition has their own narrative of patriotism, primarily based on the doctrine of pacifism and anti-militarism that was embraced throughout Japan after the multifaceted disaster of Japanese Imperialism and the Second World War. The relentless defense of these principles, primarily in the guise of Article 9 of the American imposed postwar Constitution-the protection of which seems to be invoked in virtually every campaign poster of a politician campaigning against the LDP-represents a particular vision of Japan, which they are proud of and want to protect. This is an attitude that I think should be considered a form of patriotism.
While statements by the reigning Emperor tend to be somewhat bland and cryptic, this seems to be the attitude expressed by Akihito, the Heisei Emperor, in remarks made on his birthday-which was also a top story today. Although I mentioned above that it was The Japan Times in which these four stories were placed next to each other, I’m going to present the somewhat longer quote from the BBC article (also the front page of that site).
“Now that the number of those who were born after the war increases as years pass by, the practice of mourning the war dead will help them to understand what kind of world and society those in the previous generations lived in,” Emperor Akihito said, in remarks made on Wednesday, but only made public on Saturday.
“I sincerely hope that the facts about the war and the war dead will continue to be correctly conveyed to those of the generations that do not have direct knowledge of the war so the kind of ravage of war that we experienced in the past will never be repeated,” he added.
However, the emperor avoided touching on how people should honour those who died in World War II.
(The original Japanese statements can be found here at the Yomiuri)
Somewhat limp statements like these are a result of how it is generally considered inappropriate for the Emperor to engage in any political activity, or suggest or endorse any particular thing or action, lest it remind us of the bad old days. If you read the entire statement of the”symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” you can see that he is very careful only to specifically reference the deaths of Japanese soldiers and civilians and the general horror of war, but he also hopes that the “history of both Japan and the world” should be “properly conveyed to the generation of people who have not directly experienced war” so that “the horrors of war like those of the past shall not be repeated.” Right wing supporters of the new education law may argue that children will be upset by learning about evil things done by their own country in the past, but it is difficult to believe that this sort of education encourages the strong anti-war sentiment in present day Japan. Could anyone really say that the Emperor’s desire for the history of war to be taught in such a way that it helps encourage students to be anti-war is unpatriotic?
The concept of “patriotic” education is not inherently nationalistic or jingoistic. I believe that growing up I was taught about American history in a way that was intended to strongly foster patriotism, but not by entirely white-washing the past. Among the things I specifically recall studying in American History class at some point over elementary school, middle school and high school classes are: slavery and segregation (lesson plans inspired in no small part by the fact that the public schools of Montclair, New Jersey were in the twelve years I spent there roughly 50% black/white), smallpox blankets, the Salem Witch Trials, Manifest Destiny, industrial revolution child labor, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Trail of Tears. And this is not even a complete list of the various injustices committed by the United States of America that I was taught about in history class.
A Kobayashi Yoshinori or Shintaro Ishihara might think that I went through a history curriculum written by anti-American rabid communists or something, but as I already said these were actually patriotic lessons. How could that be? Well, slavery had Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement-lessons of heroism and virtue. Segregation brought us Brown Vs. Board of Education-a lesson that our system of law is eventually a system of justice and the civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and other heroes, and of course the eventual end of legalized segregation. The Salem Witch Trials lead to separation of church and state, a fundamental principle of American society. The dark side of the industrial revolution eventually led to the labor movement and various legislation and a significant improvement in worker’s rights. And so on. I do not recall if it was ever spelled out, but in retrospect the basic narrative is clear. Not “America is perfect,” but “America’s founding principles are good, and if we work at it, someday they can be fully realized.” How similar my education was to the national average I have no idea, but I expect that this core narrative is standard. And today’s third article, telling us that President Bush has signed a law providing for the preservation and restoration of all the Japanese internment camps from World War II. “The objective of the law is to help preserve the camps as reminders of how the United States turned on some of its citizens in a time of fear.”
Right wingers in Japan deride the teaching of things such as comfort women, war crimes and colonialism as anti-patriotic, saying that it will make children feel bad about their country. But it is all about the approach. Certainly teaching children about the mistakes and excesses of the colonial decades makes them feel bad about that time, but presented correctly it makes them feel good about living in today’s Japan: a nation which has moved past that stage. Perhaps by being over-reactionary about terms such as “patriotism” and “nationalism,” peace activists, politicians and teachers in favor of actually teaching kids about the past are in fact making a serious strategic error. By saying patriotism=right wing makes it all too easy for the rightists to label them as unpatriotic, when many of them are actually very patriotic.
And now the fourth and final article, Sex slave exhibition exposes darkness in East Timor, which describes the findings of a Truth Commission by the East Timor government on the systematic rape of East Timorese woman by Japanese soldiers in so-called “comfort stations” during Japanese occupation of the then Portuguese colony, as well as the far less organized rape of East Timorese women by Indonesian soldiers during their occupation of the now independent country. While all of this is very interesting, particularly how characteristics of the local society led to different recruiting practices of comfort women from certain other colonies, the following passage is the one relevant to the current essay. [Emphasis added]
Citizen groups concerned about the lack of accountability for the wartime sex-slave atrocities convened a people’s tribunal in Tokyo in 2000 that found the late Emperor Hirohito and high-ranking Japanese military officers guilty of crimes against humanity. The verdict was later censored from an NHK documentary on the trial amid allegations by a major daily newspaper that two heavyweight Liberal Democratic Party politicians — Shoichi Nakagawa and Shinzo Abe — paid a less than comfortable visit to the public broadcaster before it was aired. [Detailed article on this case here at Japan Media Review]
Charges of government censorship of NHK, which seemed sensational and cynical at the time, are now quite believable in the wake of news that now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered NHK to focus on the North Korean abductee case. Fears that Japan is returning to 1930’s style thought control are both premature and somewhat hysterical, but increasing interference with NHK and education is inarguably more of a step in that direction than away from it. However, while the LDP did manage to pass this bill, opposition to it was fairly strong, and the Abe administration is not looking particularly popular, so it is always possible that we have another amendment of the education law by a future administration to look forward to. Yet, I think the return of education that teaches Japanese kids to take pride in their country is here to stay. The big question is, what will teach them to be proud of? German style guilt based education is entirely off the table, but that does not mean that history class has to be sanitized. There is a big difference between teaching children to be ashamed of the past and teaching them to be proud of having surpassed it.