Religion and Public School Education

Difficult Subjects: Debating Religion and Public Education in Japan and the United States

(Excerpts from my Abe Fellowship proposal)

Do public schools have an obligation to train students as moral agents? If so, how can morality be inculcated in young citizens without resorting to religious language, and without infringing on their right to religious freedom? Which modes of bodily comportment, intellectual dispositions, and affective commitments prove that citizens are really moral? I am addressing these questions in an ongoing comparative study of debates around religion and public school education in Japan and the United States. I focus on how “secular” public schools foster morality, diligence, and patriotism in students without resorting to religious language; I also consider how apparently “religious” commitments and practices sometimes inform public school curricula. Using a combination of archival research on educational law and policy and interview-based research with stakeholders such as religious lobbyists and textbook reform activists, I track attempts to introduce more religious language or behavior into public schools in both countries, either by diminishing the secular nature of school space or by re-coding originally religious practices and ideas as patriotic, therapeutic, or moral. 

I look first at the mutually influential experience of the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of Japan (1945–1952), which created new understandings of “real democracy” in both the United States and Japan. I then track changing notions of democratic citizenship over the course of the Cold War, subsequent economic booms and busts, and American and Japanese responses to terrorist incidents and shifting sexual practices and norms. Many of the contentious debates about public schooling in both countries have revolved around the question of how to make children into good moral subjects with or without the aid of religious language and training.

Debates about the proper relationship between religion and public school education center on questions of government, empowerment, and participation. In theory, public school education is the great equalizer, providing upward mobility to students while simultaneously preparing them for enfranchised citizenship through basic civics training. In practice, education often exacerbates differences of opportunity. While religion enters the conversation about public school education somewhat differently in the U.S. and Japan, it affects the ways that teachers, textbook authors, and boards of education imagine curricula, teach history, and train students as moral agents. In Japan, anxieties about the declining birthrate and concerns about regional security play out in efforts by religious lobbies to introduce good “family values” and “national pride” into public school education. In the United States, debates over shifting social mores reflect divisions about the nature of American exceptionalism. In both countries, anxieties about cultural assimilation and economic precarity inform claims about national uniqueness. These claims often have religious overtones: Textbook reform activists in the United States deem Islamic jurisprudence inimical to the “Judeo-Christian values” that supposedly inform American civic life; political pressure groups like the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership lament the “materially wealthy but spiritually bankrupt” character of Japanese society after World War II.

Because it is about children and what they do with their minds and bodies, the book is not simply about how some practices marked as “religious” can be excluded from schools while others marked as therapeutic or patriotic can infiltrate classrooms, but also about historical shifts in popular conceptions of prosperity and procreation. Capitalist commitments and sexual politics inform debates about education and religion in both countries.   

At present, I expect the book to have eight content chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Chapter one examines debates that took place between American occupiers in Japan regarding the place of religion in public schools. On the one hand, members of the aptly named United States Education Mission to Japan and leaders of the Occupation Education Division favored a model of public school education that took students’ “spiritual development” seriously. On the other hand, members of the Occupation Religions Division and their Japanese advisors recognized the importance of learning about religions insofar as it fostered religious freedom, but they feared that anything resembling sectarian education would reinstate illiberal tendencies of the war years. 

Chapter two examines educational initiatives on both sides of the Pacific in the immediate postwar period. After the Occupation ended, Japanese policy makers in the Ministry of Education quickly turned their attention to the prospect of reinstating “morality education” in public schools, and debates between the Ministry of Education and the Japanese Teacher’s Union revealed major fault lines concerning how Japanese students were to be prepared for “proper” democratic citizenship and the responsibilities of fully enfranchised adult life. In the United States, high-profile court cases about the use of public infrastructure like schools and school buses to support sectarian education revealed contemporaneous debates about the role of the state in structuring students’ moral lives. In both countries, the Cold War ideological battle between capitalism and “godless communism” played a role, as did debates over expanding civil rights.  

From the 1960s through the 1980s, Cold War politics intensified, student protest movements flared, and oil shocks rattled the economic foundations of the United States and Japan alike. This period saw new anxieties about the allure of marginal religions, the decline of traditional religions as undisputed sources of moral authority, and the waywardness of youths who rejected mainstream understandings of success. Chapters three, four, and five compare American and Japanese attempts to re-establish guiding moral principles during a period when economic fortunes and social norms were rapidly shifting in both countries.  

With the collapse of the Cold War order, anxieties that were previously directed outward turned inward to focus on new perceptions of risk. High-profile murders committed by kiddie porn murderer Miyazaki Tsutomu and the anonymous “Kid A” (a.k.a. Sakakibara Seito) caused consternation in Japan (Arai A. 2000); such concerns were exacerbated by the sarin gas attack perpetrated by the religious group Aum Shinrikyō on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 (Baffelli and Reader, eds. 2012). In the United States, the Columbine High School shootings (1999) and the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 refocused attention on security. Schools were no longer safe spaces for learning but potential execution grounds; neighbors were no longer innocuous immigrants but potential terrorists. Focusing on textbook reform movements in both countries, chapters six and seven uses interviews to determine how stakeholders understood their reform efforts and what they now see as their successes and failures. 

Where does the relationship between religion and public school education stand today in Japan and the United States? Chapter eight focuses on the 2006 revision of the Japanese Fundamental Law on Education, which took place in part because an unlikely coalition of religious organizations, anti-“cult” activists, and scholars of religion collaborated in creating the seemingly innocuous idea of “religious culture education.” Teachers can now receive certification as “Religious Culture Specialists” by passing a multiple-choice test; the certificate allows them to teach about religions at the secondary level in Japanese public schools. At the same time, concerns about teachers as moral exemplars have fueled high-profile court cases in which teachers have been dismissed for refusing to sing the national anthem or have been denied the right to teach under their maiden names. In the United States, laws targeting educational achievement have come and gone with successive presidential administrations, but a quiet revolution has taken place on school campuses. School counselors tout the disciplining benefits of the originally Buddhist practice of mindfulness; Hindu organizations protest the cultural appropriation of yoga in American public schools. The book will close by pursuing the question of why mindfulness can enter American schools unencumbered while Christian prayer remains forbidden.


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