New Education Law Unlikely to Solve Immediate Problems
Some wonder whether Abe has ulterior motive as declining academic performance, bullying, other issues appear to go unaddressed
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan)
The Fundamental Law of Education is a concise document consisting of 11 articles. Coming into force almost simultaneously with the postwar Constitution in 1947, the law was meant to be inseparable from the Constitution. In the preamble and Article 1, education is referred to as the ultimate means for the realization of constitutional ideals - peace, justice, respect for individual rights and so forth.
The new administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made revising the education law its top legislative priority. A bill spelling out the revisions is pending in the Diet to be passed over strong objections by the opposition parties and liberal circles.
Many education experts, liberal critics and academics regard the existing law as a landmark of postwar democracy and civic ideals. The changes to it are coming as a multitude of problems is badly shaking the education system and schools - rampant bullying forcing teenagers to commit suicide, spreading schoolyard violence, rising numbers of children who refuse to go to school and declining academic achievements.
But the proposed revisions are unlikely to answer these problems, at least not in the near term. The irrelevance of the move in this sense is not surprising because it is actually intended for other purposes.
Abe's declared goal is rewriting the Constitution, which he dislikes primarily on the grounds that it was imposed by the U.S. occupation authorities following Japan's surrender. For Japanese to gain true independence of mind, "the occupation regime" must be purged. and that means rewriting the Constitution. Abe has set a time frame of about five years for amending the Constitution.
Stronger state control
The proposed education law revision is closely linked to Abe's hopes for constitutional amendment. It is meant, so to speak, as a prelude.
The revised education law, with 17 articles, is somewhat longer but, on the surface, does not radically differ from its predecessor. Some critics who read it carefully, however, express concern that after the revision, the law's ideas with regard to the purpose of education will have been completely reversed.
One professor of education says there is an ulterior motive behind the revision - to make the education system a tool to ingrain certain qualities, such as respect for the state, in the citizenry. This contrasts to the existing education law's aim of realizing the ideals of the Constitution. Overall, the concern is that education could come under stronger state control.
As the Mainichi Shimbun, one of Japan's major newspapers, pointed out in an editorial, Prime Minister Abe's favorite virtues - respect for public spirit, tradition, love for the country and native land, and discipline - stand out in the new law. Although these ideals can pass as virtues on the surface, they are cause for concern from a liberal standpoint. Patriotism, which the revised law refers to as "love of our country," is considered a particularly sensitive issue.
Also, the clause calling on the government to pass basic legislation to promote education is described as a potentially dangerous excuse for the government to put the education system under its control.
Takashi Tachibana, a liberal author, argues that the existing education law represents universal human values - the perfection of character, a peaceful nation, truth and justice, the value of the individual, independence of mind, and so on - and is in itself an expression of goals beyond challenge. He suspects that those who are seeking to change the law, including Abe, have something else in mind.
Whether these assumed dangers are real is unclear. Meanwhile, the general public does not seem to be overly concerned. Or perhaps it feels disconnected from the issue, presumably because ideology-oriented debates about education fail to provide answers to serious problems. In this regard, Tachibana maintains the problems that are plaguing the educational system have nothing to do with the basic education law.
It may be appropriate to add that a significant portion of the public has been disgusted with the domination of schools by the leftist Japan Teachers Union. People suspect that the union has poisoned postwar education and that its legacy is partly responsible for the problems with younger generations. Fierce battles waged between the once-powerful teachers union and the education ministry were a marked feature of the postwar scene.
Problems facing the education system - rampant bullying, school violence, students' refusal to attend classes, the recently surfaced mass failure of high schools to teach compulsory subjects and declining academic achievements - demand an urgent response. These are problems for which schools and teachers alone cannot be blamed, since they arise from deep-rooted social factors, including modern families and lifestyles. But it should be emphasized that reversing the decline in academic standards is particularly important as it relates to the future economic power of the nation.
The Abe government's education policies are also characterized by encouraging competition among students and schools alike through school vouchers and nationally unified tests, for instance.
These policies are modeled on the U.K.'s efforts in the 1980s to reform its education system under the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These proposals, however, are drawing concern that they could only add to the inequality already broadening in Japanese society and would not bring about the desired results.
(Originally appeared in the November 20, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)