By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 15, 2006 2:42 PM
TOKYO, Dec. 15 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government on Friday successfully pushed through landmark laws requiring Japanese schools to encourage patriotism in the classroom and elevating the Defense Agency to the status of a full ministry for the first time since World War II.
Both measures are considered cornerstones of Abe's conservative agenda to bolster Japan's military status and rebuild national pride in a country that had long associated patriotism with its imperialist past. The legislation cleared the upper house of parliament on Friday after winning approval in the lower house last month and will come into effect early next year.
Abe, Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, had made education reform a key issue during his campaign to succeed Junichiro Koizumi in September. His bid to restore patriotism in schools has drawn harsh criticism from Japanese pacifists, who have argued that such a law echoes the state-sponsored indoctrination of children practiced by Japan's past military leaders.
But Abe and other proponents have countered that a renewed embrace of patriotism is an essential step forward for Japan as it gradually emerges from a decades-long sense of guilt over World War II. In recent years, for instance, local municipalities have begun enforcing laws requiring the national anthem to be sung and the Japanese flag flown at certain school ceremonies, despite objections from teachers unions, which remain one of the last bastions of pacifism in Japan.
The education reform law is likely to dramatically increase the number of schools using revisionist textbooks that have been heralded by conservatives here but decried by Japan's wartime victims -- particularly China and South Korea -- as whitewashing its past aggression. Such books, for instance, omit reference to "comfort women," a euphemism for the thousands of Asian women forced into sexual bondage by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.
"The revision bears the historic significance of clearly showing the fundamental idea of education for a new era," Abe said in a statement lauding the law's passage.
Also approved were a key set of bills upgrading Japan's Defense Agency -- created in 1954 following the end of the American occupation of Japan -- to the status of a full ministry. The move affords greater clout to defense officials in national policymaking and budget decisions, something long considered taboo here in the decades following the war.
The primary mission of Japan's Self Defense Forces -- whose role had long been strictly defined as defense of the home islands -- will now be expanded to include overseas peacekeeping missions. Japan dispatched non-combat troops to Iraq from 2004 until earlier this year, but did so only after Koizumi won special authority from parliament.
The elevation to ministry status also paves the way for the passage of more specific laws that would give Japan greater flexibility to dispatch its forces to international hot spots. More importantly, it could open the door for a larger measure of logistical support by Japan in the event of a regional conflict. Such a move could change the balance of power in East Asia, empowering Tokyo, for instance, to assist the United States in the defense of Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression. But officials here say it may yet take years before bills that would explicitly permit such actions are drafted and submitted to parliament.
Nevertheless, the upgrading of the defense agency underscores the increasing role of the military establishment in Japan, a nation that, under its pacifist constitution drafted by the United States following World War II, renounced the right to use force to settle international disputes. Japan has largely relied on its security alliance with the United States, which keeps some 50,000 troops in Japan, for deterrence.
But with concerns growing about regional security, particularly as a result of North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, Japan has begun to shed its pacifist shell. Abe has called for the full redrafting of a new constitution that would allow Japan to officially possess a flexible military again.