TV & Radio
The Japan Times: Friday, Oct. 27, 2006
ON THE 'RIGHT' TRACK
Abe to play hardball with soft education system
By AKEMI NAKAMURA
This is the first of a three-part series examining expected changes in three areas -- education, gender-equality and media -- under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office a month ago.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office last month, he promised to make education reform a priority in his plan to create a "beautiful country," overhauling a 1947 law to this end and possibly steering Japan onto a nationalist course.
The new prime minister has vowed to reorganize the public school system to boost students' academic performance and to foster a newly defined sense of "patriotism," something critics also fear may make speaking out by those opposed to this bent a social taboo.
Both his supporters and detractors agree on one point: Abe's planned changes are going to have a huge impact on the nation.
"Even though we may not see the signs immediately, Abe's reform could change the very nature of Japanese society," said Takashi Narushima, a professor on education law at Niigata University.
While many warn that this combination of a more rigorous academic study and pumped-up nationalism is a dangerous mix, there are others who argue that the current education system is responsible for everything from flagging academic and physical skills to eroding morals and even violent crime, not to mention classroom chaos.
It's not just seniors complaining that young people can't write kanji or use the abacus. In the most recent global survey, in 2003, of the academic achievement of 15-year-olds by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese students dropped out of the top spot for mathematics, held in 2000, to sixth place and fell to 14th from eighth in reading.
Tamae Shintani, head of the Elementary School Parents and Teachers Association Congress in Tokyo, has watched the education system closely for more than a decade and feels politicians haven't paid enough attention to it.
She is excited to see Abe leading the country.
"Japan's education system hasn't been overhauled since the war," said Shintani, a mother of three whose oldest child is in college. "But now we have Abe."
In a Kyodo News national survey conducted in March 2005, 75.1 percent of 1,015 respondents blamed reduced hours in the classroom and easier textbook content -- part of a more relaxed public education system introduced in 2002 -- for the poor academic performance and said this approach should be reassessed.
Part of Abe's plan to fix that problem will be to reinstate rigid academic standards.
The first step is a bill to revise the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education. Discussions on the bill, submitted by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner New Komeito in April, will begin in the Diet next week.
The bill would change the law to require that schools "cultivate a respect for tradition and culture, and love for the nation and homeland that have fostered them."
If the Diet passes the revision bill, other education-related laws and academic guidelines would be revised in line with its principles.
Another result, critics say, would be an increasing nationalistic slant to school history texts, already a key bone of contention because some appear to whitewash Japan's past atrocities.
However, the Abe government position is part of a larger conservative swing in recent years.
Publishers of junior high school history textbooks have softened their descriptions of Japan's wartime aggression in Asia under pressure from various groups on the right.
Not one of the eight history textbooks approved by the education ministry in 2005 mentions the women from occupied nations forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army, known euphemistically as the "comfort women." All seven textbooks authorized in 1996 covered the issue.
To help with the reforms, the prime minister has started a new advisory panel, the Education Rebuilding Council, with 17 members taken from government, business and academia. At their first meeting on Oct. 18, Abe urged the panel to think of new ways to improve not only academic performance, but also moral character, and suggested such things as reading and mandatory "volunteer" work.
Abe has also proposed a system of government vouchers to enable children to attend private schools regardless of their parents' income, which may force public schools to become more competitive to win students from their private rivals.
He also wants to monitor public schools with periodic evaluations by outside bodies.
The government under Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, announced in April it will reinstitute nationwide achievement tests for the sixth and ninth grades, starting next April. It has been 40 years since these evaluations have been done.
Niigata University's Narushima said, however, that many of Abe's ideas to improve educational standards will do more harm than good.
Abe's educational reforms will result in students at a very early age being split into those who will be the elite and those who will not, with a widening disparity in the quality of education between the two, he said.
"For the losers in this competition, dissatisfaction will fester," the education professor said. "Society will fall apart. To fix it, the government will push the Hinomaru flag and 'Kimigayo' national anthem to integrate (the losers) into the 'beautiful country,' and compel them to toe the national line."
On the other side of the argument is Hidetsugu Yagi, a professor of law at Takasaki City University of Economics in Gunma Prefecture and a former president of the conservative Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which has been at the center of the textbook controversy for its junior high school texts that downplay Japan's wartime aggression.
He reckons tough action is exactly what is needed.
"Kids today have too many holidays," Yagi said. "Summer vacation should be shortened to have students attain minimum academic capabilities."
He said firms also want kids' holidays cut so they will have more time to learn skills needed for the modern economy.
The conservative camp is just as concerned that schools strengthen their students' Japanese identity, something Yagi and others believe will address what they see as society's moral decay.
Abe and many in his Cabinet -- notably special adviser on education Eriko Yamatani and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura -- have all at some point accused public school teachers of having a leftwing agenda, which focuses too much on Japan's misdeeds, such as the country's wartime aggression, and too little on the more positive aspects of the country's history.
On the teachers' side, many are nervous about pushing patriotism in schools, as it conjures up fears of a return to early 20th century imperialism.
However, a Jiji Press survey conducted in May shows that 54.7 percent of some 1,300 respondents said they supported the ruling bloc's bill to revise the Fundamental Law of Education to state that schools should foster in its students a love of their nation.
Since 2003, teachers and students in all Tokyo public schools have been required under a metro government directive to stand and sing the national anthem before the Hinomaru at ceremonies. Teachers who have refused have been punished by pay cuts or suspensions.
Kimiko Nezu, a teacher at Tsurukawa No. 2 Junior High School in western Tokyo who was disciplined for refusing to sing "Kimigayo" at school ceremonies, said she believes directives from above to observe patriotic rituals are suppressing healthy debate in the schools.
"About a decade ago, we teachers used to take up social issues with students in the classroom. But now I see many teachers shy away from political topics," Nezu said. "I don't think teachers can teach children that people should stand up against things that are wrong."
Yagi of the revisionist history text camp hopes to keep the reform momentum going. On Oct. 22, he and scores of other academics launched the Nippon Kyoiku Saisei Kiko (Japan Educational Revival Organization), a think tank dedicated to supporting Abe's reform plans. They plan to hold public meetings nationwide to hear people's suggestions for reform and pass the ideas on to Abe.
"We will drastically change Japan's educational system by proposing alternatives to the dubious educational methodologies of the past and, in so doing, lead the way for our children who will bear responsibility for Japan's future," Yagi said in a statement posted on the organization's Web site.
Regardless of if Abe succeeds as prime minister, Nezu said the conservative educational agenda has built up too much momentum to end anytime soon. "I don't think that this trend will abate after Abe," she said. "It will probably continue for decades."