Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pissing Away an Education


 Peeing Boy at Tokyo's Hamamatsuchou Station  
This month began the new school year in Japan and the Peeing Boy at Tokyo's Hamamatsuchou station, like everyone else across the country, is dressed accordingly. When he was first suited up, his head was adorned with a quaint little chapeau which he lost to one of March's final roars. I wouldn't have noticed it was missing except for the fact that for a day or so his pate was covered with the tape that failed to keep his cap in place. His hat is now long gone with the wind but it seems that somebody at least had the decency to clean the not-so-sticky tape off the top of his head. He looks like he's pretty much back to his normal self now. If you hadn't seen that cute little lid covering his crown, you wouldn't think anything was missing. Although there isn't anything irregular about how he's dressed, I know he used to make much more of a daring fashion statement and I think we are all a little worse off without it. 

Just like the Peeing Boy, this month kids across Temple Valley were beginning new academic careers at our various local academic institutions. They all donned spiffy uniforms or got gussied up in their finest most subdued hued outfits, as did their parents, and crammed into gymnasiums across the valley to engage in the very serious business of the school entrance ceremony. The somber affair at my son’s junior high was typical, hours of sheer boredom interrupted by moments of blissful dozing. It was all sooo Japanese including what happened after it was all over.

Standing just beyond the school gates were members of Kyokasho Saitaku o Kangaeru Tsurumi-kumin no Kai (Craneview Citizens for Better School Books) a local group opposed to a new history textbook being used in Yokohama city schools. The group claims the text promotes the gutting of Japan’s famed peace constitution by demeaning its war-renouncing Article 9. They also say the new text paints the darker chapters of Japan’s history in a new light that virtually whitewashes atrocities committed by Japanese Imperial forces in Asia during the second World War. On top of that, against the backdrop of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, they charge the book provides an all too rosy picture of nuclear power as the promise for a brighter future.

The scene was nothing out of the ordinary. People here have seen it played out at school entrance ceremonies time and again over the last couple of decades. It's just the latest local skirmish in a long protracted civil war for the hearts and minds of the country's youth. 


In addition to the public textbook dispute, teachers across the archipelago have been standing up, or rather sitting down, for their rights as well. School boards from Tokyo to Osaka and beyond have been threatening or carrying out punitive actions against teachers who do not stand before the Hinamaru and sing Kimigayo (the nation's official flag and anthem since 1999).  Teachers have claimed orders to sing the anthem or stand in the presence of the flag infringe upon their constitutional rights. These defiant resisters believe Kimigayo, whose lyrics call for the Emperor's eternal reign, hark back to Japan's imperial militaristic past, while being forced to stand before the flag only flies in the face of freedom. When it comes to education's fundamental 3 R's of "readin' ritin' and ritmetic" they don't think nationalism and its evil twin, militarism, should fit into the equation.


In recent years opponents of Article 9 have worked hard to whittle away Japan's constitution in hopes of joining the ranks of "normal" countries around the world who proclaim the right to project military force where they see fit. Legislation passed in 1992 and in 2003 has paved the way to the deployment of Japan's Self Defense Forces for UN peacekeeping and humanitarian missions and more in places around the globe. Perhaps most notably the country sent a contingent of troops to Iraq in 2004 at the request of the US. In May of last year the the Japanese SDF opened up a naval base in Djibouti to support its fight against pirates operating off the Horn of Africa. The naval station is the first such Japanese installation built since the end of WWII. 


While it may be regrettable for many, it looks like Japan is marching on toward "normality" and the cap (the country's famed peace constitution) that has hemmed its military in is slowly falling away bit by bit. That's not all it's losing either. Along the way it seems as if history and the books that teach it are getting a good trampling. That might be the biggest loss of all since just knowing that the cap was there in the first place and the reason why it was there could provide a valuable lesson for everyone. Like Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  


Related post: Stopping Leaks


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