June 2022 | Japan Media Watch

Documentary chronicles textbook approval system's effect on education

On May 26, Hisayo Saika, a TV news director for Mainichi Broadcasting System in Osaka, gave a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club promoting her new documentary feature, Education and Nationalism, which had been released in theaters two weeks earlier. The film is about the Japanese government's vetting of school textbooks, particularly history textbooks, a topic Saika has been covering for many years. Her documentary is basically an augmented version of an award-winning story she did for MBS in 2017. Saika's premise is that the government works to shape school textbooks so that they convey a particular narrative about Japan. 

During her FCCJ presentation, Saika kept returning to the theme of how the government's efforts to bend textbook writers and publishers to their will is reminiscent of the prewar Imperial authorities' propaganda activities, right down to reviving the Imperial Rescript on Education, a Meiji Era (1868-1912) document pledging loyalty to the Emperor that schoolchildren were forced to memorize and recite. Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including former prime minister Shinzo Abe, have indicated they favor bringing back the Rescript, which violates the spirit of the Constitution by deifying the Emperor. 

In her movie, the Rescript is central to the scandal surrounding the establishment of the Osaka elementary school that was planned by the private Osaka-based school operator Moritomo Gakuen in 2017. The scandal itself focused on whether Moritomo received special favors from the government in buying land cheaply at the behest of then Prime Minister Abe, whose wife, Akie, was named honorary principal of the planned school. What interested Saika was that Moritomo was already running a kindergarten where students were made to recite the Rescript. During a discussion of the movie on the web talk show Democracy Times, Nobuyoshi Takashima, an honorary professor at the University of the Ryukyus who has studied the history of Japanese textbooks, expressed shock that in the 21st century children were being taught such an anachronistic document, especially kindergartners, who couldn't possibly understand its purport since the language is so arcane. To him it was a form of "imprinting," and since then he has learned that other private schools in Japan have been teaching their students the Rescript as well. 

The Rescript was removed from school curricula in 1948, when Japan was still occupied by U.S. forces. One of the reasons it has made a slow comeback in recent years is that the government has reinstated "moral instruction" as a cornerstone of Japan's education policy. 

Saika's movie opens with an explanation of a textbook written for use in classes about moral education, in which the writer originally used an example of a bakery to illustrate the idea of a local business. Later the publisher was compelled to change the bakery to a traditional Japanese confectioner so as to instill in students a greater appreciation for something uniquely Japanese. Though the change seemed trivial, as Saiko told The Asahi Shimbun during a recent interview, it represented to her the main thrust of the government's aims in education, which is to cultivate an ideal Japanese citizen who manifests what it believes to be the superior values exemplified by Japan in the past. 

Takashima pointed out that in 2006, during the first Abe administration, the basic education law was revised to disregard "improper directives" with regard to teaching, but the question has always been: Who decides what is improper? It should be noted that the textbook authorization system has always been controversial. Historian Saburo Ienaga sued the government three times between 1965 and 1984 for making him change passages in his textbooks. In 2014, then education minister Hakubun Shimomura announced new textbook review standards that would determine the basis for content. This Cabinet directive eventually led to the Rescript being revived by certain education advocates in the government, who claimed it was never banned by law and could be used as part of the foundation of basic education. Consequently, Takashima says, even some opposition lawmakers have come around to the idea that the Rescript has value.

By pinning virtue to respect for authority and implying that subjects of the Emperor should lay down their lives for him, the Rescript dovetails with a reemerging nationalist mindset that sees the Meiji Era as the pinnacle of Japanese culture and thought. As Takashima explains, the first Japanese law to address textbooks was made in 1903 as a means of "unifying" their message in response to a scandal in which publishers bribed school officials to buy their books. Competition had led to corruption, so the government decided to oversee the textbook process. Prior to 1903, textbooks were more "open-minded" in that they often reflected a variety of ideas from other countries. After 1903, the government inculcated authoritarianism in the curriculum through the Rescript. Following the war, the system returned to its old ways, with publishers writing what they wanted to write and schools free to select the ones they wanted to use, but textbooks were still reviewed by the education ministry.

Both Takashima and Saika trace the current campaign to control what textbooks convey to the 1990s, when nationalists started to write their own textbooks to advance what they thought was a less "masochistic" reading of Japanese history. For the most part, schools did not opt to buy these textbooks, though they were widely available in bookstores. Saika interviews one of the principle writers of these texts, University of Tokyo professor Takashi Ito, who says plainly that his goal was to develop proper Japanese citizens, and when Saika asks him what "proper" means, he says, "Not left-wing." And what about learning from history? asks Saika, to which Ito replies, "You don't need to learn from history."

The history textbooks that Ito and his ilk have written tend to take what is characterized as the "revisionist" position: downplaying or denying Japanese atrocities during World War II, and supporting a positive spin on Japan's annexation of the Korean peninsula. However, as Ito revealed indirectly, his textbooks discouraged critical thinking, which is a prime purpose of most conventional textbooks, as pointed out in the film by a representative of the publisher Manabisha, which has continually resisted the government's push to make them rewrite their texts to conform to what the authorities deem proper. 

As Takashima explains, the education minister, Koichi Hagiuda, said during Diet deliberations last year that references to historical events "as recognized by the government" are the only ones that will be approved for textbooks. Although this stance clearly contradicted the non-compulsory policy that was in place since Shimomura's directive, no one in the government, including bureaucrats, challenged the statement. Later, when an opposition lawmaker asked if differing opinions could be included in textbooks, the education ministry said they could, but as it stands, the policy for assessing and approving textbooks holds that the government's opinion be acknowledged. 

In order to do this, the government uses market incentives and disincentives. Often by the time a textbook is reviewed it has already been edited and even printed, and if the government decides that some passages need to be "rewritten," the publisher will have to go to great expense to do so. Most publishers avoid this prospect by writing what they believe will be accepted by those doing the assessing. In this way, the government cannot be accused of censorship since they are technically only making suggestions, but with added outside pressure on educators and local boards of education by interest groups to use certain textbooks and not use others, publishers may feel it's in their own interest to conform. 

Saika uses numerous examples of how this kind of pressure has worked its way into the language of textbooks. Though history texts can mention "comfort women," the women who sexually serviced soldiers at front line brothels during World War II, they have stopped associating them with the military, thus giving the impression that these women were free agents, which fits the revisionist narrative that comfort women were professional prostitutes. In addition, Koreans who came to Japan to work for the war effort are rarely described as being forced to do so, but rather "hired" or "mobilized." In practice, publishers can use these nominally discouraged words, but they have to couch them in language that makes it sound as if the descriptions are the opinions of certain people. 

In the interview with the Asahi, Saika said she became interested in the subject of school textbooks because she had already been reporting on education. Around 2010, she noticed a sea change in the way classes were being taught. It wasn't just the textbooks that were changing. It was the teachers as well. They seemed to be more easily intimidated, and were constantly anxious about being branded as "anti-Japanese" by parents and outside observers. In 2012, teachers at an Osaka prefectural high school were monitored to make sure they were actually singing the national anthem during school functions. When she confronted then Osaka city mayor Toru Hashimoto, who insisted it was part of the teachers' job to sing, they got into an argument that lasted 30 minutes. Afterwards, Saika received hundreds of anonymous emails and messages criticizing her reporting. 

Saika reiterated this point at the FCCJ event, recalling that school staff rooms used to be lively places where teachers exchanged tips and experiences. These days, she says, those rooms tend to be deathly quiet. 

Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number 1 Shimbun.