Education International
Education International

Address by EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen to the Assembly of Nikkyoso in Tokyo on 25 November 2006

published 26 November 2006 updated 26 November 2006

Below is the text in English of the address by EI General Secretary to the Assembly of EI affiliate Nikkyoso in Tokyo on 25 November 2006.

Dear colleagues,

It is an honour for me to join you at this important assembly. I have come to support Nikkyoso in your struggle against changes in the fundamental Law on Education that could take Japan back to the past, while pretending to take Japan into the future.

To underline the seriousness of this issue, one month ago 8500 members and colleagues meeting here in Tokyo adopted a declaration of a state of emergency. Throughout the country, Nikkyoso members have held assemblies at their workplaces, to endorse this declaration. Now the amendments have passed the lower house of the Diet. But the struggle goes on.

My comments today will be in two parts, each related to the debate over education in Japan:

Firstly, Japan’s place in the world and the perceptions of your colleagues in other countries.

Secondly, the great struggle over the future direction of globalization.

Japan’s place in the world

When one reads the arguments of the governing parties and the opponents to the amendments it is striking to see that this is really a debate about Japan’s place in the modern world.

What is the perception that your colleagues around the world hold about Japan today? I guess most would perceive Japan as a democratic nation, with a strong civil society, including strong trade unions, and freedom of expression. Japan has the second largest economy in the world after the United States. Increasingly Japan has played a role commensurate with its economic weight in international institutions – the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD and the specialized agencies like UNESCO, the World Health Organization and the UN High Commission for Refugees. The combination of these factors – a robust democratic society, economic strength, and responsibility in global institutions, brings about a very positive perception of Japan.

But there is another less positive perception of Japan that is beginning to emerge, unfortunately, precisely because of the amendments to the fundamental Law on Education, and related issues, including pressures to revise the Japanese Constitution.

It is widely understood that the amendments to the fundamental Law on Education are intended to prepare the way for revision of the Constitution. As Nikkyoso has pointed out, several points in the amendments could violate the Constitution, in particular the rights to freedom of thought and expression. But if the strategy is to prepare the way for changes to the Constitution, these violations can be seen as part of that strategy.

Of particular concern is the move to insert patriotism as a central feature of both the Education Law and the Constitution. The amendments stating the goals of education to include “respect for traditions and culture”, and “love of the nation and homeland” are widely seen as preparing the way for similar amendments to the Constitution, and indeed for revision of Article 9.

Now, at first glance these words might seem fairly innocuous. But all the discussion in Japan makes it clear that these are code words for a reassertion of patriotism and nationalism as guiding features in Japanese education. Let us pause to consider what some thinkers have said. George Bernard Shaw (referring no doubt to the British) said “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others – because you were born in it!” and on nationalism, Albert Einstein said “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind”. Patriotism and nationalism were at the root of the great and tragic conflicts of the 20th century.

Pride in one’s country, in one’s own heritage, is of course natural and commendable. But transformation of that natural pride into patriotism and nationalism is dangerous. Let me cite an example, it is the case of Yuko Masudo a teacher who expressed critical views about Japan-South Korea relations. She was sacked because she “lacked appropriateness as a teacher”. The point is that the revision of the Fundamental Law on Education will substantially increase pressure on teachers to be “appropriate” that is to be conformist.

It is also worth noting that if there is a referendum to change the Constitution of Japan, public servants, including teachers, will be prohibited from commenting on it. Teachers will thus be denied their rights as citizens to participate in democratic debate about the future of their country. Let me say, to Education International, this is unacceptable.

The amendments to the Education Law are also to be seen together with the long-running debate over the contents of history books in Japanese schools. EI’s World Congress in 2001, in Jomtien, Thailand, supported Nikkyoso’s position on the textbooks issue. Again let me be clear. To present this debate in terms of national patriotism versus national humiliation is wrong. And it is rendering a disservice to the younger generation.

Accuracy of the historical record is vitally important so that we can all learn from the lessons of the past, and so the citizens of democracies can set a more constructive course for the future. The fact is that many democracies have had to look at their past, in order to draw lessons for the future. The British had to confront their colonial past. Recently, there was a debate in the French Parliament, rather similar to the one in Japan, when some legislators wanted to recognize “the positive contribution of colonialism”. That initiative was rapidly defeated.

The United States had to confront the reality of atrocities committed in Vietnam. In Germany, all mainstream political parties have recognized the evils of the Nazis – only a miniscule extremist fringe would deny this – and that recognition has enabled German society to move on. International perception of the official Japanese views on the history of World War II is not positive. Let me give you another example, on the issue of forced labour in World War II, the International Herald Tribune of 15 November quoted an American scholar at Kyushu University: “Japan, at the state and corporate level, has taken the completely opposite approach of Germany”, by refusing to recognize the issue.

So you see, when we consider Japan’s place in the world, the positive perception that I described earlier, is being undermined, seriously, by an emerging negative perception linked to the amendments to the Fundamental Law on Education, the history text books issue, and official denial of the past.

The future direction of globalization

As Nikkyoso says, the amendments change the basic idea of public education. The Education Law has until now been in line with the concepts contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration was in turn the inspiration for Education International’s constitutional aims and principles. We believe education is of fundamental importance for the full development of each individual and of society as a whole – at all levels, local, national, regional and global. Education is about much more than economic competitiveness. It is important to know that there is a worldwide debate about the future of globalization – and education’s role in that. On the one hand we have the approach initiated by Thatcher in Britain, putting the emphasis on competition and economics. It seems the Japanese government wants to emulate her changes to education, which caused much devastation by increasing inequality and squeezing resources for public schools – with serious social consequences today. On the other hand, we have a growing recognition that globalization requires global cooperation and a form of governance that makes social justice possible.

Make no mistake, globalization is with us to stay. The question is, what kind of globalization. Globalization of the law of the jungle, of the rule of the strong over the weak? Or globalization that takes into account the human and social dimensions? Many conservative governments are ironically linking policies stated to enhance competitiveness in the global economy with reassertion of patriotism. That is the case in Australia, where industrial democracy has been uprooted in the name of global competitiveness, by a government that played to narrow chauvinism for electoral purposes by its rejection of asylum seekers. It is the case in one of Europe’s most populous countries, Poland, which I visited last week, where the government is reasserting “traditional Polish values” while pressing for changes to make Poland more competitive. It is the case in the United States, where government support for US-based multinational corporations goes hand in hand with building a 400 kilometre fence to keep out Mexicans.

What is the common picture here?

All these governments, Japan’s included, use the combined arguments of national patriotism and global competitiveness, to push through policies that serve the short-term interests of their dominant economic groups. This approach is not only immoral, it is unsustainable over time. It is the responsibility of education unions worldwide, and of the broader trade union movement, to advocate for a globalization based on equity, social justice and common rather than competing interests, such as the need to act together on climate change. It is our responsibility to promote understanding among nations and peoples. We must oppose the building of barriers – whether physical, as between the US and Mexico, or mental barriers as between Japan and its neighbours. Rather than barriers we must build bridges of understanding.


Education cannot solve all the problems of society. But as educators, we know from first-hand experience the problems faced by young people. Already in 1998, the EI World Congress, held that year in Washington DC, unanimously adopted a resolution proposed by Nikkyoso on the societal alienation of children due to “Kokoro-no-are” (emotional and mental stress). That resolution called for appropriate environments for learning, together with the provision of health and counselling services and community support for families wherever necessary.

I want to emphasize that educational success is best achieved when the governments engage with education unions to find the best policies for the future.

It is the role of EI to bring together the independent and democratic education unions of the world in order to share our experiences and to work out how to address these important challenges together. That work will be carried forward at our next World Congress in Berlin next July, on the theme "Educators - Joining Together for Quality Education and Social Justice".

Education International is your advocate with the international institutions – with the World Bank, UNESCO, OECD, and the United Nations itself. It is crucially important that we link closely our advocacy at that level with the action of each member organization. Naturally, that is also why your government should accept Nikkyoso as an important partner, instead of attempting to denigrate and demean your role.

EI has the responsibility of defending teachers’ rights everywhere. We do this in close cooperation with the International Labour Organization. Regrettably, in the past we have had to take action at the ILO against the Japanese government over violation of basic trade union rights for teachers. If necessary, we will do so again.

Let me make it clear to the public authorities of your country – EI regards Nikkyoso as an important and responsible member organization, making a very significant contribution both regionally and internationally. I want in particular to salute and thank Nikkyoso for your solidarity and contribution to the tsunami reconstruction projects in Sri Lanka and Aceh, and to the Indonesian Teachers’ Union consortium.

Colleagues, the key to the future in Japan, as in other countries, is dialogue and engagement with partners of civil society such as education unions. The systematic rejection of dialogue, the conflict-riddenl relationship, and might I say the authoritarianism of the past, have proven to be sterile and unproductive. This is not the way forward. Nor is it the way forward to force through profound changes in basic legislation. Rather, it is through dialogue and engagement with civil society that we can build better education, and a better world.

Will your authorities listen to the voice of reason? On behalf of 30 million of your colleagues throughout the world, that is my call to them, for the sake of our young people, for the generations to come, and for a positive and respected place for Japan in the global community of the 21st century.

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