TV & Radio
Japanese call on patriotism to battle fears of rising juvenile delinquency
Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent
June 05, 2006
CAN learning to love their country steer Japanese schoolchildren away from the snares of delinquency, which apparently lurk everywhere, even in the world's most law-abiding nation?
Conservatives hope so, because though hard evidence does not support their notion that youngsters are going off the rails in large numbers, teenagers are the object of great moral fluster in Japan.
"You cannot speak to young people on the train nowadays - they will knife you," declares an after-work drinker in a suburban Tokyo bar. His companions, middle-aged office workers, agree emphatically.
Pressed for first-hand examples, they talk about kids sprawling on seats, talking loudly, eating in public, and schoolgirls wearing cosmetics. The knifings invariably come from the newspapers.
"There is moral decay among juveniles and ever-younger members of society are committing crimes," editorialised Yomiuri Shimbun, the world's biggest-selling daily newspaper, in support of the "patriotic education clause" in the revised Fundamental Law on Education.
The new law would make it public education policy to teach "an attitude that respects tradition and loves the nation and homeland that has fostered them, respects other nations and contributes to the development of international society".
Though that wording seems benign, critics on the lookout for new manifestations of Japan's old ultra-nationalism claim the Liberal Democratic Party is softening up the electorate for its real objective: amending the pacifist postwar constitution.
"There's been no revision of the fundamental law since 1947 and there has been no necessity to change before because everyone, from the LDP to the socialists, agreed on the basic principles of education," says Mikio Someya, of the Japan Teachers Union.
"Many of those positions have been eroded under the Koizumi Government, and now it is changing these laws with the ultimate view of revising the constitution."
However, conservatives were disappointed last week when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi decided against extending the national Diet's spring session to pass the revised law before he retires in September.
But its absence does not mean patriotic education is impossible. Prefectural education boards can allow school principals to include the subject in social studies courses, and even grade students on their love of country. In Saitama, north of Tokyo, 52 schools are already doing that.
The revised law does not call for patriotic evaluation, and Mr Koizumi thinks it is a bad idea. But some education boards could take the law as a licence for de facto compulsion of patriotism.
That's what happened after 1999, when the Government allowed schools to choose to raise the Rising Sun flag each morning and have voluntary singing of the Kimigayo anthem. Since 2003, more than 300 teachers have been disciplined for refusing to sing the anthem, more than 90 per cent in Tokyo, where nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara holds sway.
Given the public mood, it is likely Mr Koizumi's successor will return the education bill to the Diet later in the year.
Although the Government does not explicitly equate an absence of patriotism with low moral fibre, the Central Council on Education, which supports patriotic education, does. "It's difficult for present-day youth to have dreams and purpose and their will to observe (social) norms, public morality and self-discipline has been declining," the council, a panel of eminent and mainly elderly people, grumbled in its advisory paper.
Several months after the paper was prepared in 2004, Japan suffered one of those "What have we become?" moments. Satomi Mitarai was fatally stabbed at school by an 11-year-old classmate, who took offence at something her friend had written on the internet page they shared.
It was a sad but rare occurrence, as Mariko Hasegawa, a behavioral scientist, said at the time.
"The media focuses on these terrible crimes committed by a few mentally damaged individuals, but they make out anyone can do such a thing," Hasegawa said.
But Satomi's killing came weeks after the release of official data reportedly showing a juvenile crime surge. True enough, the 2212 serious offenders aged 14 to 19 years in 2003 - out of about 6.7 million in that age group - was the highest total in four years.
But it was not anywhere close to the juvenile crime peak in 1983 when, in popular memory, youngsters were generally much better behaved, or 1964 when many of today's worried grey-heads were in their first flush. As the Satomi stories were being written, juvenile crime - as measured by arrests and convictions - was falling, and it fell again last year.
What the youngsters themselves think of all this is almost inscrutable to a foreign journalist with an uncertain grasp of their language, and perhaps also to many Japanese parents.
Theirs is not a culture that encourages intra-generational frankness, except when senior citizens exercise their customary right to scold anyone younger for bad manners. This tradition is fading, however, because some young adults are no longer docile when tongue-lashed.
Last May, an elderly woman approached a 22-year-old at a Tokyo subway station and gave her an earful for fixing her mascara in public. The office lady responded with a vigour that, unfortunately for them both, propelled her critic into the side of a moving carriage.
Hiromi Osedo, 17-year-old daughter of The Australian's Tokyo office manager, says she can see why old folk are anxious and annoyed, but they miss the point.
She thinks the real juvenile problem these days is people turning aggression inwards, from hikikomori (the youngsters who refuse to leave their rooms) to youth suicides. Last year, 433 university students and 281 high school students killed themselves, as did seven primary schoolkids.
"In the trains, I know youngsters do behave badly (Hiromi's talking about sprawling, not knifing) and the old people notice that. They blame us, but they also blame our parents for not disciplining us," she said.
"But things were worse a decade ago, in my brother Yoji's time. Then there was a lot of bullying and other really bad behaviour among high school girls. We're more disciplined now and study harder, especially the ones who are going on to university."
And patriotic education?
"It won't work," Hiromi says firmly. "If the politicians are serious about this, it will make the students like North Koreans."
She means brain-washed, but Bradley K. Martin reveals in Under the loving care of the fatherly leader: North Korea and the Kim dynasty that the teenagesons of Pyongyang apparatchiks have long indulged in serious gang fighting, despite all their patriotic education.