Japan Will Allow Its Schools to Use a Controversial 19th-Century Imperial Text

The educational edict was banned after World War II for serving military and nationalistic purposes

Meiji Emperor
The Meiji Emperor, who issued an influential educational announcement in 1890, poses with the imperial family. Wikimedia Commons

Arguments about how to present history never seem to die. Take Japan: Regularly a site for heated battles about textbooks and the best way to grapple with its military and imperial past, it's now a focus of a debate about the appropriateness of re-introducing a 127-year-old edict into today’s classrooms.

The material in question—a banned educational order made by the Japanese Emperor in 1890—was recently approved as an option for schools to include in their curricula, a decision that's come under much scrutiny, reports Mari Yamaguchi for the Associated Press. Allowing the edict back in textbooks and classrooms is being criticized as the latest example in an ongoing attempt by Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his cabinet to return to a nationalist and patriotic vision of the imperial past, writes Yamaguchi.

During a press conference, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga defended the decision, saying that the government should allow for its use "under careful consideration so that it does not violate the Constitution and the basic education law."

Called the Imperial Rescript on Education, the text was once ubiquitous in Japanese schools. Schoolchildren used to recite it while kneeling in front of an image of Emperor Meiji, who made the order. The rescript includes Confucian values like to be "filial to your parents," "affectionate to your brothers and sisters" and "advance public good and promote common interests." But the rescript also served military and nationalistic propaganda purposes, with text stating "should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth."

At the time, the rescript served an important purpose. After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forced to open its doors to world trade in 1853. With that came rapid modernization and calls for a modern constitution. The Meiji Constitution followed in 1889—as did a sort of national crisis between Confucianist conservatives and proponents of modernization on what Japan's future should look like. When it came to education, the rescript reflected the ongoing conflict, writes Benjamin C. Duke in his book on the history of Japan's education system.

"While the initial policy had been to compile proverbs for moral education, it was later decided to present the message in the form of an imperial rescript," Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) notes.

Soon, Duke writes, the rescript became associated with Japanese nationalism, a reverence for a divine emperor and a strict educational system. But after World War II, the country became a democracy, even though technically Japan remains the world’s oldest continuous monarchy; the emperor no longer holds anything but symbolic power. In 1946, Emperor Hirohito declared that he was not divine, and in 1948, the Japanese legislature renounced the rescript altogether: "eliminating thoroughly the error of an education that would put our state and nation at the center of the universe and instead proclaiming solemnly the concepts of democratic education aimed at rearing a humanity that stands for truth and peace."

The original edict itself was badly damaged in 1923 in a catastrophic earthquake that tore Tokyo to shreds. And it was lost all together in the 1960s. But as the Japan Times reports, it was rediscovered in the Tokyo National Museum in 2012—still damaged, but back in government hands.

As Martin Fackler reports for the New York Times, Abe was previously driven out of office in 2007 in part over a tussle with textbooks. (His government attempted to delete mention that Japanese military's forced Okinawan civilians to commit mass suicide during World War II.) Since returning to the political spotlight in 2012, he has backed attempts to require books that downplay or revise Japan’s role in war crimes and the forced prostitution of “comfort women” during World War II. Recently, Abe became the subject of scandal after he was accused of giving a secret donation to an ultra-nationalist kindergarten where kids bow before portraits of the imperial family and recite the rescript. 

​​Reuters’ Linda Sieg reports that Abe's base thinks a stronger Japanese identity will restore the country’s economic and political might and that “moral education”—which, presumably, includes the use of materials like the rescript—is an important part of the conservative platform. But as opposition leaders put it in a statement last week, for them, the return of this imperial text to the classroom is nothing other than "unconstitutional and unacceptable."

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