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Japan May Plant a Flag in Students’ Backpacks

Times Staff Writer

If the Japanese government gets its way, educators will soon add another course to the standard curriculum of reading, writing and arithmetic: teaching students to show love for their country.

The proposal to make education more patriotic signals the determination of conservatives here to combat what they see as a self-obsessed youth culture, characterized by rampant school bullying and juvenile crime, that they say is eroding the nation’s vaunted social order.

Under proposed revisions to the 1947 basic education law that are being debated in parliament, teachers would be required to instill in students “an attitude that respects tradition and culture, and loves the nation and the homeland that have fostered them.”

The changes alarm liberal critics who worry that a legal duty to teach a love for Japan would override the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of thought and conscience. They argue that mandating educators to teach patriotism echoes the ultranationalism of imperial Japan, which led to the catastrophic error of military aggression and, ultimately, ruin.

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But the mood in Japan is strongly in favor of strengthening pride in country. Recent polls show two-thirds of the public supports the revisions.

During parliamentary debates last week, critics of the proposal said some schools were already grading students on their level of patriotism. Fifty elementary and middle schools in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo have been marking students on their love of Japan, a practice the teachers union contends is spreading to other parts of the nation in anticipation of changes to the basic education law.

“How can patriotism be evaluated?” complained Sachiko Nishinaka, an official with the Japan Teachers Union. “If a student says the SDF [Self-Defense Forces, the nation’s military] should be sent to Iraq, does this student deserve an A? If a student says, no, there are other things Japan could do besides sending the SDF, does this student deserve an A?”

The government enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament and hopes to pass the amendments before the legislative session ends June 18, though a crowded agenda means the bill may have to wait until the fall.

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However, all three major parties agree that the basic law needs amending. They are merely squabbling over the wording.

The changes would be the first revisions to a law written during post-World War II U.S. occupation. Japanese conservatives never liked the original measure’s emphasis on individualism, which was aimed at cultivating independent thought as an antidote to the prewar Imperial Rescript on Education. That document shaped generations of students by stressing the merit of obeying the emperor and the state.

Some observers argue that modern Japanese schools, which still require student uniforms and emphasize rote learning, are hardly hives of unfettered individualism. But there is also a widespread perception that discipline and social unity have been diluted by the pressures of a long economic recession and the Internet Age.

“We are not intending a law that would draw us into war,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told legislators last week, noting that the revisions would also require teachers to imbue a respect for other countries. “The bill puts heavy importance on an education suitable to a new era and is aimed at nurturing admirable manpower for the benefit of Japan.”

The measure is part of a broader attempt by conservatives to control education policy and the powerful teachers union, one of Japan’s last bastions of leftist politics. It includes a clause requiring education policy to be carried out “in accordance with other laws,” a potent phrase designed to make it easier for authorities to enforce directives on teachers.

The basic law made education immune from “improper control,” a protection teachers have cited in fending off political interference. They have challenged everything from government textbook selection to school boards’ attempts to force them and students to stand, face the flag and sing the national anthem at graduation ceremonies.

That latter battle has been particularly bitter. Many teachers have refused to stand, citing the anthem’s links to the militarist era. They have been disciplined by school boards and, in some cases, prosecuted by the government.

On Tuesday, a retired Tokyo teacher was found guilty of “obstructing business through the use of force” for disrupting a 2004 high school graduation ceremony. Katsuhisa Fujita, 65, was charged after he implored parents not to stand for the anthem as required by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education. Though Fujita was ejected from the ceremony, about 90% of the students remained seated during the song, school officials said.

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The judge fined Fujita nearly $2,000, dismissing the prosecution’s demand for an eight-month jail sentence. But the stance of the deeply conservative Tokyo board has driven the number of dissenters down from more than 200 in 2003 to just 44 last year.

It is that record of intimidation that worries critics of the plan to write patriotic education into law.

“Most people genuinely have deep respect for their homeland,” said an editorial in the daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun. “But once patriotism is enshrined in law, there is a danger of teaching children to uniformly be more patriotic.”

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Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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