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Lessons in Morals

Japan’s school system is unique in many ways. The content of lessons will of course vary from country to country, but in general, students learn mathematics, languages, and creative pursuits the world over.

Japan has an extra lesson that many countries do not include in their curriculum, known as ‘moral education’.

This is now compulsory for elementary and middle school students, although the introduction has not been without many controversies. What sort of things are taught and how can you teach children morals?


Classroom | History | Lessons in Morals
Teasing Master Takagi-san 2, episode 1, 2019

Moral education is seen as controversial in Japan because this is not the first time such an education has been tried in the public school system.

In 1890, under Emperor Meiji, the Imperial Rescript on Education was written as a document on the government policy of education in Japan. This was read aloud at school events, and students were encouraged to memorize it.

One section in particular, raises many issues now, namely the passage ‘should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the state’. This sentiment, very much absorbed by the population, proved disastrous.

In 1947 the Fundamental Law of Education was passed, which kept the government out of education. Moral education was still taught but was much less formal, and content was left up to individual schools and teachers.

This law was revised in 2006, prompting concerns that the government wishes to have more control over the content of moral education.

What is Taught

Elementary students at their desks | What is Taught | Lessons in Morals

The four main pillars of the new moral education are benevolence, loyalty, respect, and reciprocity. Benevolence is about one's own skills and thoughts, loyalty includes loyalty to your family, school, and nation.

Respect does not just cover respect for other people, but also their ideas and care for the environment. Reciprocity covers topics such as manners, honesty, and justice. There is nothing in the official moral education that many could ever find fault with.

The main worry is; will children be graded on their patriotism?

Going Beyond the Textbook

Cleaning duty | Going Beyond the Textbook | Lessons in Morals
Kids on the Slope, episode 1, 2012

Even though formalized with structured lessons and a textbook, moral education is nothing new in the Japanese school system. Education isn’t just about gaining knowledge, especially in the younger age groups, it is fundamentally about creating a well-rounded person.

Much of Japanese ideals are influenced by the teachings of Confucius, particularly the ideas of respect for elders and your fellow students. Students all stand up and bow to the teacher together in a formalized greeting, and do this from elementary school.

The inferiors respect the elder, and in turn, the superiors have a moral obligation to protect the younger members of society. The culture of senpai and kouhai also begins at a young age, especially in club work.

Lunch is a Lesson Too

Getting lunch for the whole class | Lunch is a Lesson too | Lessons in Morals
Only Yesterday, 1991

Lunch in elementary schools is also part of the learning process. The students take it in turns to go to the kitchen to get lunch for the whole class, and they are also the servers for that day. While they are gone the rest of the class arrange the tables, and put out chopsticks for everyone.

All the children are served, and after the traditional words of ‘Itadakimasu’ thanking for the food, everyone eats together. It is not only a way to make sure young children get a hearty and healthy meal at school, but it is also seen as a way to emphasize teamwork and manners.

After lunch is over the students clean the classroom, and in some schools even the hallway and bathroom. This continues in middle and high school with ‘o soji’, the cleaning of the school when the academic day has finished.

Schools do not employ janitors, the students empty the trash, sweep the hallways and wipe the chalkboards. These activities emphasize and teach moral education far better than the textbook ever could.

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