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No end in sight for gov't intrusion into education, baseless claims about system failures

House of Councillors lawmaker and LDP Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Division Director Masaaki Akaike, right, and Kihei Maekawa, former administrative vice minister of education, are seen against the backdrop of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (Mainichi)

It's quite an ominous story. Responding to a request by Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislators, the contents of a lecture at a public junior high school in Nagoya given by Kihei Maekawa, former administrative vice minister of education, were repeatedly investigated.

Thinking back, since the inauguration of the second Abe Cabinet, there has been no end to these types of cases causing "turmoil" in the field of education. Why is it that politicians are so eager to reach into the classroom?

The Maekawa lecture issue has garnered criticism from all sides, but the incident drew the wrath of even conservative heavyweights. One such figure was Sankei Shimbun political journalist Sumio Yamagiwa, a former central figure in coverage of the prime minister's office. Yamagiwa tweeted on March 18, "I believe the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's relentless inquiry into former administrative vice minister Kihei Maekawa's lecture shows our government has grown immoral." This is coming from a man who has consistently been a supporter of the Abe administration.

When asked for comment about his intent via email, Yamagiwa answered in the following fashion:

"In the scandal surrounding the Kake Educational Institution, I felt Mr. Maekawa's conviction as a public official when he consistently spouted out that the 'administrative procedures were distorted.' I could only see the excessive intrusion into the class taught by Mr. Maekawa as harassment by the government against a bureaucrat who opposed it."

In his reply, Yamagiwa also touched on the topics of the two LDP lawmakers that made the inquiries to the education ministry about Maekawa's lecture and caused the stir in the first place, House of Councillors lawmaker and LDP's Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Division Director Masaaki Akaike and deputy director and House of Representatives lawmaker Yoshitaka Ikeda.

"I think I share the same stance toward education with Mr. Akaike and Mr. Ikeda, and I remain supportive of the educational reform that Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe has been promoting," he wrote. "But what would they think of this excessive intervention into education had it been made by a Democratic Party of Japan-led government? I think that precisely because this administration has been in power for such a long time, that they should have high aspirations and hold utmost responsibility. I want to say to the Abe administration and the LDP, 'Don't be arrogant!'"

But the Abe administration and the LDP's meddling with education is not just limited to the current scandal. In 2015, there was talk of "requiring" national universities to fly the Japanese flag and sing the national anthem. In 2016, an online questionnaire was carried out to investigate if teachers were biased and critical of a set of security-related legislation and other matters. Finally, last year, there was the allowance of the nationalistic prewar Imperial Rescript on Education to be used as class materials. These are just a few examples, so I would like to re-examine the situation. Is the education system really flawed to such an extent?

"There is no other era that has been so exclusively self-interested and utilitarian as the current one," "Secondary education has considerable defects. Schools as well as teachers are closed off from society ..."

While these words disparaging education and social conditions may sound like those of an LDP lawmaker, they are in fact from a 1933 collection of essays "Hijoji Nihon no Kyoiku" (the Japanese education in crisis) edited by the Social Education Society that I found in the National Diet Library. While some politicians tend to favor the prewar education system over the current one, there are many documents of the time that argued that that system was also flawed.

"In short, the idea that 'Education today isn't good enough,' has just been recycled endlessly since the Meiji era. To put it simply, it's nothing more than a subjective opinion with no evidence," explains Japanese Educational Research Association head and Nihon University professor Teruyuki Hirota with a sigh. "Among some politicians and critics, there are people who say, 'The Japan Teachers' Union (JTU) has destroyed Japanese education,' and this is also a type of baseless conspiracy theory."

The ratio of public school teachers who were members of the JTU was 86 percent during the 1958 academic year, but that number has been decreasing steadily, and in academic 2017, only 23 percent of teachers were members. However, it doesn't seem that one can say the weakening of the organization has led to any turnaround in the quality of the educational environment, and in fact, the number of known bullying cases has risen from some 155,000 in academic 1985 to some 323,000 during the 2016 academic year. Still, since perception of what exactly qualifies as bullying has changed with the times, one cannot definitively say based on this data that bullying is more widespread than 30 years ago.

"Politicians using their own skewed experiences and subjective views to beautify the past, believing that 'education today that won't make kids into what we want them to be is flawed' and wanting to interfere with the academic sphere is perhaps only human nature," commented Hirota.

If that is indeed the case, then I am curious about the reason why lawmakers saw the content of Maekawa's class problematic. At press conferences and elsewhere, previously mentioned legislator Akaike explained that "he (Maekawa) violated laws and regulations" in a scandal over high-ranking education ministry officials retiring into jobs in the private sector. But if one takes a look at Akaike's blog, he refers to the late author Yukio Mishima, who broke into the Ground Self-Defense Force Camp Ichigaya in Tokyo with a group of young people and tried to start a coup d'etat, as "teacher," and has the entire text of Mishima's "declaration" posted. It goes without saying that Mishima and his followers' actions were recognized by a court of law afterward as crimes such as assault and confinement.

As a private citizen, anyone is entitled to the freedom to exalt Mishima, but if Akaike is to claim that the problem with Maekawa was "violating laws and regulations," then how does he perceive the actions of Mishima? There are cases of private academic institutions receiving government subsidies for private schools that have monuments honoring the author on their campuses. I asked Akaike for comment about this, but he refused, saying that he "didn't have time."

But how do historians view the current situation? Retired Otaru University of Commerce professor Fujio Ogino, 65, who is an expert in the thought policing of the prewar education ministry, had this grim message:

"If the current state of society in Japan today was to be compared to a prewar period, I feel that it has already surpassed the Manchurian Incident (1931) and has come to more strongly resemble the period just before the start (in 1937) of the Sino-Japanese War."

What Ogino is referring to is when the prewar education ministry would survey the country's universities and other academic institutions to ascertain exactly what kind of classes they were holding in the 1930s.

"The greatest tipping point was the 1935 so-called 'Emperor as an organ of government theory incident,'" Ogino continued. The incident involved discussion of the constitutional theory that a nation state was an organization, and the emperor was just one part in it, possessing no authority over and above the state, in the former House of Peers. It went on to be attacked and discredited by nationalist groups.

"This example too is a case of a portion of politicians who saw a problem with constitutional academic theory that had been accepted up until then, and the education ministry responded to that by trying to wipe out the theory, tighten control of education and increase surveillance and investigation of institutions," explained Ogino of the 1935 incident. Afterward, economist and educator Tadao Yanaihara, who was critical of the Sino-Japanese War, economist Eijiro Kawai, who opposed the tide of fascism starting to take hold, and other liberal-minded university academics became the targets of government crackdowns.

"Concerning the current (Maekawa) case, the inquiries from the lawmakers appear to be the source of the issue, but doesn't it stem from the ministry of education as a whole wanting to promote education touting 'love of country' and drop curriculum that didn't meet the standards of the 2006 revision to the Basic Act on Education? If we look for the cause in only certain lawmakers alone, we run the risk of trivializing the wider problem," Ogino concluded.

If so, what should be done about education? I posed this difficult question to 67-year-old philosopher and educator Tatsuru Uchida.

"If we place emphasis on organizational management, that would work in favor of schools and the government. However, this produces nothing. The most efficient thing for education is for the government not to control and let educators do as they wish," Uchida answered. "Every child is different, and what they can do and can't do, their abilities and their interests are all varied. There is no point in trying to homogenize and manage those children. It's precisely seemingly inefficient and roundabout education that is a shortcut to effectively give birth to something new."

In his book "Atarashii kuni e" (Toward a new nation) and other works, Prime Minister Abe writes of "educational reform." If he really intends to revive the education system, then he should begin with the freedom to criticize the government in the classroom.

(Japanese original by Riki Yoshii, Tokyo Evening Edition Department)

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