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Sunday, July 1, 2001

Nakasone as No. 1 reformer


JAPANESE EDUCATION REFORM: Nakasone's Legacy, by Christopher P. Hood. London and New York: Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge, 2001. 222 pp., 50 UK pounds (cloth).

When neoconservatism was riding high, a leftwing cartoonist drew a pastiche of Edward Hopper's famous painting of a sad roadside diner, and then imaginatively peopled it with three of the conservative icons of the past two decades: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Does Yasuhiro Nakasone deserve a place in this picture?

Christopher Hood would argue that the former Japanese prime minister probably does, but for reasons that will make Nakasone's many critics rather uncomfortable. Indeed, Hood's insistence that we should let the facts about politics speak for themselves is refreshing because so rare.

And interesting facts abound in this well-researched, clearly written and jargon-free book. Hood takes the reader in hand and guides him through the intricacies of the key reform bodies and the Japanese educational system as a whole. It is also a tour of Nakasone's mind.

In the name of scholarly engagement, Hood has targeted two audiences: those without Japanese who have an interest "in Japan, Japanese education, Japanese society or Nakasone," and Japanese readers who are "interested in reading information and views of a non-Japanese who has been able to access information that would not normally be available to them."

Many of the most debated themes in contemporary Japanese education are given individual chapters, including healthy internationalism, traditionalism and control, and liberalization and privatization. Having grabbed our attention with a provocative chapter titled "Nakasone as number one," Hood concludes with an equally controversial essay called "United and successful: final conclusions."

In a field where ideologues tend to rule, where political prejudice is often a substitute for solid research, and where criticism supposedly precludes the necessity for understanding, Hood argues for the supreme virtues of successful social science: balance, fairness and objectivity. Serious students of Japan will welcome this return to scientific impartiality.

Without endorsing Nakasone's nationalist ideology, Hood asks us merely to judge, in an open-minded way, whether this politician's educational reforms have succeeded on their own terms. Hood believes that they have, and that this achievement justifies the claim that Nakasone's premiership was one of the most effective of the postwar period.

Indeed, taken together with his efforts to deregulate the economy and bureaucracy, Nakasone was, in Hood's assessment, Japan's most influential prime minister since the Occupation. Certainly, no former prime minister has haunted the struggles of postbubble policy- makers as much as Nakasone because he was often successful at reform while they remain mired in relative failure.

Nevertheless, to understand why Hood's reflections on Japanese educational reform are so striking, it is essential to see how different Nakasone's ambitions were from those of Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul. True, all four leaders were of an era: Cardinal Wojtyla assumed the papacy in 1978, Thatcher knocked Labour from power in 1979, and Ronald Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter in 1980. For his part, Nakasone became prime minister in November 1982 and reigned until November 1987. Among postwar prime ministers, only Shigeru Yoshida and Eisaku Sato served longer.

In their different ways, all four conservative leaders ambushed faltering versions of social democratic liberalism, an ideology that had, by the late 1970s, run out of ideas and vision. The three Westerners took the helms of major institutions -- the Roman Catholic Church, the British economy and the American government--that were caught in profound crises of confidence, and revived them by sheer force of will and what Max Weber would have called "charisma."

Nakasone neither sought nor achieved a national revival (Japan did not need reviving). He may be described as "witty," "shrewd" and "cynical" (Puerto Ricans and African-Americans would add "prejudiced") but hardly "charismatic." Japanese prime ministers almost never are (in Japan's modest charisma stakes, Hayato Ikeda, prime minister from 1960 to 1964, gets my vote).

Nevertheless, Nakasone left his mark. Certainly in targeting education, he made an astute policy move. The benefits of a vital and effective national education system are now undisputed. Free trade, industrial pollution and nuclear proliferation may set social democrats, neoconservatives and communist bureaucrats at each other's throats, but not education.

In that sense, Nakasone was ahead of his time (though he himself thinks he failed). Earlier than most, he grasped the nature of the two-front war that defines the contemporary classroom: The successful educational system must inculcate values as well as marketable skills and knowledge.

But what values should be taught? In a country where nationalism is so pervasive, the last thing young Japanese people need is more patriotic instruction. Here, Nakasone's ideological compulsions blighted his efforts. In turn, his approach has made it too easy for his critics to tie themselves in ideological knots. Blasting his nationalist agenda, some Western critics have gone on, for example, to castigate the explicit emphasis on socializing the child in Japanese education as pernicious propaganda.

Here is Hood's sage formulation of the problem: "It may be the case that Japan has used education more than many other countries to help form 'suitable' characteristics in its people. However, I feel that it is also the case that Japan has been more open about admitting education's role in this area, and the process goes on in other countries more subtly."

Blinded by bogus doctrines such as "child-centered" education, the liberal "education expert" assumes that the Western classroom is value free while the Japanese is value laden. This is nonsense. Just peruse American textbooks on the Vietnam War or British textbooks on World War II, or the attitudes toward foreigners hammered home in the classrooms of both systems. Nationalist myths roam the halls of all state education systems: The Japanese are just more honest about it.

Furthermore, education does not exhaust Nakasone's importance. Hood's new research focuses, among other things, on the former prime minister's role in the deregulation of the Japanese National Railways during the 1980s.

While the creation of what fund managers call "the JRs" (JR East, JR West, JR Tokai, etc.) was hardly perfect (the new firms were left burdened with debt), Nakasone's initiative has proven vastly more successful than its equivalent elsewhere, most notably in Britain, the country that invented privatization.

Liberally sprinkled with candid and often shrewd remarks on how to glean information from interviews as well as how the specialist constructs his "image" of Japan, Hood offers a fresh portrait of Japanese education, as free from ideological rancor as it is open to the insights that only a fair-minded appraisal of the facts can give.

David Williams is the author of "Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science."


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