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Moritomo scandal spotlights use of nationalistic 1890 rescript in schools

In this photo from May 1942, students present arms before an enshrined photograph of the Emperor and Empress at a public school. The Imperial Rescript on Education played a role in encouraging prewar militaristic education.

Sparked by the scandal surrounding school operator Moritomo Gakuen, the nationalistic "Imperial Rescript on Education" is once again gaining attention. The Mainichi Shimbun investigated its current use as an educational material in schools.

Although the national government adopted a statement this past March that the rescript is "inappropriate to be used as the sole foundation for education," a Cabinet decision also said it "could not reject the use of the rescript as educational material as long as it did not violate the Constitution or the Basic Act on Education." The use of the rescript, officially invalidated and nullified by the Diet in 1948, has now been left in the hands of educational institutions and municipal boards of education.

One example of the current use of the rescript can be found at a private high school in the town of Hiranai, Aomori Prefecture. Shofujuku High School was established in 1974 with an educational philosophy based in the spirituality of Shintoism, and adopted the controversial rescript as a course material. Once a week, all the students at the school gather together to read the rescript aloud, and in first year "religion" class, the director of the school offers commentary on the document over the course of three lectures.

When asked about the rescript recently becoming a hotly debated topic, Principal Hiroaki Narita coolly responded that it was just, "something that happens once every few years." Shofujuku High School regards the rescript as a piece of "classical writing for students to learn about the spirit of Meiji era Japanese people." The school also claims that it serves as a reference when learning about family relationships during that period.

Some politicians have occasionally said, "there are universals that can be applied to modern society in the contents (of the rescript)," among other comments about the document. Principal Narita echoed the sentiment: "There is nothing strange about the passage which tells pupils to value their parents and friends." When asked if learning the imperial rescript is a necessity, he explained, "It is one educational material to have students think about how people live their lives."

Shofujuku High School also draws a clear line between its teaching practices and that of Moritomo Gakuen, which made kindergarteners, who could not fully understand the content, recite the rescript. Of the portion of the rescript that reads, "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," (according to a translation by the former Ministry of Education) which is associated with the militaristic education of the time period, Narita explained that the school teaches it differently.

"We explain clearly that the situation at the time is different from now. We teach that the passage refers to times where the country faces a disaster like the Great East Japan Earthquake, where we must have the courage to help those in trouble," he said.

A 58-year-old social studies teacher at a public junior high school in Tokyo also takes a stance removed from current societal debates similar to that of Shofujuku High School Principal Narita when teaching about the imperial rescript to her students. "Since before the debate began, I have been using the Imperial Rescript on Education as a material to teach about Japan's 'negative history.'"

In junior high school history classes, the rescript is first covered at either the end of the second year or in the third year. According to the teacher, she generally explains the reality that the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was issued in 1889, and the rescript was released the following year. She also teaches her students the definition of the term "imperial rescript." She said she has never heard of a case where the rescript was taught from the viewpoint of being a positive example of moral education.

While making students read a copy of the rescript aloud, the teacher asks her students, "It says that filial piety is for the emperor. Do you think there is anything strange about that?" Their reactions are divided. Some students show more interest in studying history from a variety of angles after learning the differences between the past and the present through the document, while others remain uninterested.

The imperial rescript is currently described in all textbooks for junior high school social studies and for Japanese history and ethics in high school. Of the eight textbook companies that publish junior high social studies textbooks, four include modern Japanese translations of the document. Three of the four companies, including Teikoku-Shoin Co., mention that the reading of the rescript and praying at Shinto shrines was enforced as part of Japan's colonial policies.

Four publishers, including Kyoiku-Shuppan Co., put in their textbooks that the Imperial Rescript on Education was abolished in line with the Act on Basic Education passed in 1947, and mention that pre-war nationalism and militarism in education based on the rescript contradicts the current democratic education system. Publisher Nihon Bunkyou Shuppan Co. includes an exercise in its textbook which asks students to explain what kind of country the Meiji government wished to create drawing from documents like the imperial Constitution and rescript on education to deepen their understanding of history.

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