The Diet’s diet

In the current special session of the Diet, the most contentious subject under discussion is Prime Minister Abe’s proposed revision of the 1947 Fundamental Law on Education. Abe’s move has drawn fire from all opposition parties, as he has indicated that any education reform must include greater emphasis on patriotic education. Of course, of all the problems in the Japanese education system, a lack of patriotism is probably the least of concerns. As Abe said in his weekly email magazine this week:

Today, children are taking their own lives after being bullied. Children are being abused by their own parents. I am utterly shocked to hear the frequent occurrence of such incidents. How are such tragedies possible? How is it that even children with their whole future ahead of them are being abused and bullied at home and in school, the very places that should protect and nurture them? I sent Special Advisor to the Prime Minister Eriko Yamatani and Head of the Education Rebuilding Council Office Hiroyuki Yoshiie to Chikuzen Town in Fukuoka Prefecture immediately after a student committed suicide there as a result of having been bullied in school. It is the basic stance of the Abe Cabinet to listen directly to the voices of the people concerned.

As this article in The Japan Times indicates, there are considerable problems beyond the educational environment — particuarly lax standards and a misplaced emphasis on preparing students for university entrance exams. It is unclear how exactly introducing patriotism into the curriculum will help. Perhaps it will create a more disciplined learning environment? Whatever the reasoning, it is difficult to see how it will improve the ability of Japanese students to thrive in a globalized world. Thus the DPJ’s stalling tactics against the bill — criticized in this editorial by the right-of-center Yomiuri Shimbun — may prevent the passage of an education bill, but perhaps over the long run it will lead to the passage of a better education bill.

The measure of education reform in Japan, and, for that matter in other developed countries, must be how successful it is in preparing students for a world that is changing drastically. In the coming decades, Japan’s role as a regional leader will grow and, mutatis mutandis, Japan will be more globalized than it has ever been before. It may be time to shift the balance in Japanese education away from producing nails that don’t “stick out” (from the oft-used Japanese proverb 出る釘が打たれる, deru kugi ga utareru, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”), and begin emphasizing creative and critical thinking. Japan shouldn’t completely abandon the old ways, but as Japan changes — and Japan has been in the midst of tremendous, if understated upheaval for some time now — so too should the Japanese education system.

The other piece of legislation of significance this term is a bill to elevate the Japan Defense Agency — currently a 庁 (cho), an office subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office and therefore a second-tier participant in the Cabinet — to a 省 (sho), a proper defense ministry that would be a member of the Cabinet with first-tier standing. This bill was actually leftover from the spring, but now, the Asahi Shimbun reports (link in English), it is likely to pass during the current session, thanks to the support of the DPJ. The bill is coupled with a revision of the Self-Defense Forces Law that elevates deployments outside of Japan to participate in UN peacekeeping operations or to provide rear-area support for US forces to one of the JSDF’s primary missions, alongside territorial defense and disaster relief. The latter bill may be as significant as the former, because it enshrines into a new view of the JSDF as a force that excels at MOOTW, as I discussed yesterday. Both pieces are consistent with the “normalization through law” approach that has dominated Japanese security policy since the early 1990s: they push the envelope of permissible security activities, and expand the tools by which the Government of Japan will be able to act should a critical situation arise, but they do not in and of themselves constitute “normalization.” So these bills are further positive steps in pursuit of the ever-elusive goal of a Japan fully capable of acting as a security provider.

What emerges from this picture of this term’s activity in the Diet is a DPJ struggling to find the right strategy to confront a reforming LDP prime minister — it struggled to find the right way to attack Koizumi, and it looks to be in the same place regarding Abe. The problem is that cleavages in Japanese politics do not neatly coincide with party lines. Cleavages are within parties, rather than between them, which puts the DPJ’s conservative reformers (many in the younger generation in politics) in an uncomfortable position when confronted with initiatives generated by young conservative reformers in the LDP. That dilemma explains the pattern seen in this term: the DPJ supports strengthening Japan’s national security apparatus, which is largely uncontroversial and valued by the DPJ’s hawks, while taking a strong stand against the controversial revision of the education law. The DPJ will grasp whatever issue it can to contrast itself with the LDP. Whether this strategy will lead to the DPJ forming a government in the near future remains to be seen.

To conclude on a personal note, I have decided on an apartment. I will be living in Kamakura, walking distance to Kamakura Station on the Yokosuka line. A long commute perhaps, but what’s a long commute when one has reading material. A pleasant beach town popular with toursts, Kamakura will probably be great (and noisy) come summertime. Upon moving in, however, I will have to furnish the place entirely — and I mean entirely. There is not a single appliance or piece of furniture in the place (not counting the bathroom). It makes be tired just thinking about it, and there are a number of contractual steps I must take before I will be able to move into the apartment. Simply exhausting, although my present exhaustion is in part the long days I have day in, day out — up before 6am, asleep after 11pm. On top of that, my earlier progress in recovering my Japanese abilities seems to have stalled somewhat. Sorry to end on a down note, but at the moment there’s just not that much “up” there. After all, it’s the start of the weekend, but the weekend schedule is no different than the rest of the week.

I’ll close by linking to an article from the Chronicle on Higher Education on Wikipedia. As readers will notice, I regularly link to Wikipedia articles. As the gateway to information — the “alpha,” so to speak — there’s simply nothing better. It’s not one-hundred percent authoritative, but it’s an excellent place to begin looking something up — and when in need of the answer to a trivia question or crossword clue, I’ve yet to be disappointed.

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