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Abe Cabinet Endorses Anti-Democratic Education

SNA (Tokyo) — The Japanese political world is filled today with intense discussions about a 127-year-old document that had long ago been discarded as a reference point for education policy, but has now been revived by an Abe administration bent on rewriting the verdict of Pacific War history. In doing so, they have also revealed an alarming attraction to anti-democratic education philosophies.

It was Moritomo Gakuen Principal Yasunori Kagoike who triggered the recent round of debate over the Imperial Rescript on Education, promulgated by the modernizing Meiji Emperor in 1890. For the rightwing activist Kagoike, young children should be taught to memorize and follow the ideals of this late 19th century document.

After the Moritomo Gakuen controversy erupted, Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party cornered Defense Minister Tomomi Inada in Diet debate on March 8 in order to reveal the minister’s sympathies with Principal Kagoike’s educational policies. Inada, known to hold rightwing ideological views, took the bait, declaring, “We should bring back the spirit of the Imperial Rescript on Education, which aimed for a state based on moral principles.”

The Abe Cabinet itself is now openly endorsing and defending the Imperial Rescript on Education, in spite of the fact that both houses of the Diet denounced the document in June 1948 as a handmaiden to wartime Japanese militarism.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declares that the government is not going to “proactively” encourage the teaching of the Imperial Rescript in Japanese schools, but will leave the matter up to local authorities to decide for themselves.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal support, like that of Defense Minister Inada, is not really in doubt. When he was chief cabinet secretary to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in June 2006, Abe declared in Diet debate that the Imperial Rescript expressed, in his opinion, “very wonderful ideals.”

Indeed, while some of the principles of the document are not in any way objectionable, such as its exhortations to be “affectionate to your brothers and sisters” and true to your friends, it also includes passages such as, “should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.”

As mainstream historians note, while the Imperial Rescript on Education drew upon themes derived from Confucianism and Shinto, it repurposed them in an unprecedented manner that encouraged worship of the Japanese Emperor as a godlike figure. It soon became a rallying point for Japanese imperialism as the country quickly adopted modern technology, led by the Imperial Army and Navy.

In other words, even in its own time the Imperial Rescript was shaped and intended as an anti-democratic document pitting a supposedly divine imperial system against untamed movements of popular sovereignty. It was written by modern men with modern political objectives. Indeed, the promulgation of the document occurred shortly after Japan’s first elections and the establishment of the first directly-elected Diet under the Meiji Constitution.

Through its embrace of such a document, the Abe administration plays directly into narratives such as that of Xinhua of China: “From relaxing post-war pacifist constitution that bans its military from fighting abroad to ambitious overseas military presences, and now from the military to national eduction, the steps taken by the Abe administration reveal Japanese far rightists’ attempt to revive pre-war militarism.”

While the Beijing media has its own interests in mind when making such assertions, it must also be noted that the Abe administration has entirely set itself up for this kind of criticism through needlessly polarizing stances such as this one.

Embracing a previously disavowed late 19th century document that called upon the Japanese people to “offer” themselves to “the State” and which declared the way of Japanese Emperors to be “infallible for all ages” is not to be regarded as equivalent to “moral education” as reasonably understood in the early 21st century.

Appendix: Full Text of Imperial Rescript on Education

Know ye, Our subjects:

Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue; Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers. The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may thus attain to the same virtue.

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