Tokyo — An impassioned debate is under way in Japan on the definition of "patriotism." On one side is the Education Ministry, which thinks the time has come to nurture "the will to defend our country" in the classroom.
Ranged against it are left-wing teachers, unions, and some political groups that see this as a dangerous step toward reviving the sort of militarism that dominated Japan in the 1930s.
In view of Japan's recent history, this is a highly emotive subject. Most postwar governments have considered it best to avoid discussing the issue altogether.
Since the administration of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki took office in July, it has been sounding the alarm that Japan is threatened by outside forces (namely the Soviet Union). Moves are under way to significantly increase national defense spending and capability.
But some observers fear this clear-cut goal will become clouded in the emotional debate over encouraging a martial spirit in the young.
The patriotism issue was first raised by Education Minister Tatsuo Tanaka at a July 17 Cabinet meeting, when he said it was important for all Japanese to think more about the nation. Education, he said in effect, should be developed to "promote the spirit of defending the country."
Ministry officials later said studies would begin shortly on how to "nurture the will to defend our country" through the formal education system.
At present, no textbooks at the elementary or high school level use the phrase "defend our country," one source pointed out. All references considered to encourage Japanese militarism were excised from school texts during the US occupation, and little attempt has been made to restore them.
One idea to weave the subject of defense back into the classroom is to include it in revised teachers' guidebooks and encourage supplementary reading on patriotism and its place in national development.
This, however, is strongly opposed by the Japan Teachers' Union (Nikkyoso), the bulk of whose membership supports either the Socialist or Communist parties.
Nikkyoso consistently has resisted attempts to infuse patriotism in school education. It has campaigned against the singing of the national anthem "Kimigayo" and the raising of the flag at schools.
Critics of the Tanaka move say that existing teacher guidelines stipulate "the goal of school education is to build up persons of character who can contribute to the welfare of mankind and development of the nation, while loving the country with an awareness of Japanese." What else is needed? they ask. Others argue that patriotism cannot be taught in a classroom.
The Tokyo Boy Scouts Association also found itself under fire recently when organizing a jamboree on a military training ground. The group planned to offer the 8,000 participants a chance to learn about tanks and mix with men of the Ground Self-Defense Forces.
Association head Masaru Ibuka, honorary chairman of Sony Corporation, said: "Today's education does not produce young people who love their country and are prepared to bear the responsibility for defending it."
Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda Motor Company and chief director of a fund that supports the Boy Scouts, argued that learning to operate a tank was no more harmful than learning to drive a car.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper joined the fray by arguing that "even the militaristic education of prewar days did not foster patriotism. Most of the youngsters who perished on the battlefield fought in the belief they were protecting their families and sweethearts.
"It is certainly true," the editorial added, "that our children are not being taught about defense in a clear way. Neither are they being told about the horrors of war which the Japanese experienced not so long ago.
"Doubtless, many children would be overjoyed to touch a real tank, but adults who want their children to receive a real education should not pander to childish desires. It's shameful that a grown man should have said tanks are little different than cars."
Amid a barrage of criticism from left-wing political and union groups, the scouts association eventually canceled the plan, even though its chief director, Iwao Nakane, insisted the aim was not to promote military education.
Meanwhile, on the northern island of Hokkaido -- considered most vulnerable to Soviet invasion -- the teachers' union has asked the board of education to prevent children from taking part in a "get-acquainted" program offered by the Self-Defense Forces. This summer, 68 high school boys each paid $15 for a three-day stay at a military base. They were shown various weapons and equipment and participated in barracks life.
The SDF began the public-relations push last year. After the war a military career was totally discredited and, although the image has gradually improved in recent years, all three services are having trouble recruiting.
A leading businessman, Hosai Hyuga, earlier this year brought up a taboo subject when he suggested it was time to consider reintroducing conscription.
But a subsequent public opinion poll showed that 70 percent of the nation's youth would refuse to take up arms if drafted. This was apparently one factor behind the education minister's controversial initiative.