THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
October 16, 2020 at 18:45 JST
A notice sent by the education ministry to presidents of national universities and others asks them to display sympathy for former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whose memorial service will be held on Oct. 17 in Tokyo. (Tomomi Abe)
Complaints keep rising over plans for the funeral of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, ranging from the cost to taxpayers to allegations the government is interfering in political neutrality and “matters of the heart.”
The latest controversy erupted after the education ministry issued a notice to national universities, prefectural boards of education and other organizations, asking them to display sympathy for Nakasone when the Cabinet and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party jointly hold his tax-funded funeral on Oct. 17.
Nakasone, an LDP member who served as head of state between 1982 and 1987, died on Nov. 29, 2019, at the age of 101. His funeral was initially scheduled for March but was postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Education board members and teachers are split over the ministry’s request to display sympathy. Many say the request amounts to silent pressure from the ministry and poses a threat to political neutrality of education.
The decision was apparently an easy one in Gunma Prefecture, where Nakasone was born. The prefectural education board on Oct. 15 notified all municipal school boards and principals of prefectural schools about the ministry’s request.
Nakasone “is a great figure in Gunma,” said Hiroshi Kasahara, superintendent of the prefectural board. “It is necessary for us to let children learn about his accomplishments and mourn the loss.”
However, the Osaka prefectural school board on Oct. 15 decided not to forward the ministry’s notice to local schools. The board said that such an act potentially violates a clause in the Basic Education Law that prohibits schools from supporting a particular political party and conducting a political activity.
‘JUST FOR YOUR INFORMATION’
An earlier request concerning the funeral also raised eyebrows among educators.
The Suga administration on Oct. 2 approved a plan for each ministry to display a flag of mourning for Nakasone and to observe a moment of silence during the funeral.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told education minister Koichi Hagiuda and internal affairs minister Ryota Takeda to notify all related people about the plan.
The education ministry on Oct. 13 sent a notice about the plan to the heads of national universities, ministry agencies, the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, the Japan Mutual Association of Public School Teachers, among other organizations.
The notice includes a graphic explanation on how to display the mourning flag in the same way as the flag used at the funeral of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912).
The notice also says the time for the moment of silence will be 2:10 p.m. on Oct. 17.
“You are kindly requested to make arrangements. Thank you in advance,” it says.
The ministry sent a similar notice to prefectural education boards that says, “Just for your information,” and asks them to forward the information to municipal school boards.
‘HARMS POLITICAL NEUTRALITY’
Kokkororen, a labor union for national public service personnel, criticized the notice on its website on Oct. 14. The union’s statement said the Cabinet’s approval of the plan “harms the political neutrality of civil servants who serve all people.”
It also said the ministry’s request to observe a moment of silence for Nakasone “can lead to an infringement on freedom of one’s heart.”
Kato, the chief government spokesman, fended off the criticism at a news conference on Oct. 15, saying the notice “does not pose any problem from the standpoint of political neutrality.”
“It was intended to ask for their broad cooperation to pay their final respects to (Nakasone) as public organizations,” Kato said. “It does not coerce them to follow.”
He added that each organization can decide independently on whether to express sympathy.
But many educators remain skeptical.
The president of a national university in eastern Japan fears the ministry may later check if each school has followed the request.
“Condolences are things that should be expressed personally,” the president said irately. “I’ll just display a mourning flag, probably in my office.”
A male teacher at a prefectural high school in Aichi Prefecture said, “I feel uneasy about the central government meddling in matters of an individual’s heart and spirit.”
‘OUT OF TOUCH’
During an Oct. 15 hearing session held by opposition parties, a Cabinet Office official said the education ministry did not send such a notice to universities and education boards for the jointly held funeral of former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who died in 2007.
The central government also did not ask government agencies and local offices to display sympathy at that time.
“I heard it was the will of (Miyazawa’s) bereaved family,” the official said.
For the joint funerals of other former prime ministers, such as Ryutaro Hashimoto in 2006, Zenko Suzuki in 2004 and Keizo Obuchi in 2000, the central government asked local governments and others for cooperation in paying respects by displaying a mourning flag and observing a moment of silence.
For those funerals, the education ministry sent a similar request to national universities and prefectural education boards.
Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of the sociology of education at Nihon University who chairs the Japanese Educational Research Association, said such requests are “out of touch with the times.”
“As much as the government says such a request is nonbinding, it may work to apply silent pressure on teachers and schools,” Hirota said.
He said the prewar value that the nation and its people exist as one remained for a while after the end of World War II, citing the state funeral held for former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida in 1967 as an example.
“But today, people value plurality and political diversity more,” Hirota said. “Focusing only on the merits of a particular politician who belongs to a certain political party and asking teachers and educators, whose jobs are supposed to be politically neutral, to go along with it may lead to forcing a partial value on them.”
96 MILLON YEN PRICE TAG
Earlier criticism concerning Nakasone’s funeral focused on the cost to taxpayers.
The Cabinet on Sept. 25 approved the spending of 96.4 million yen ($916,000) for the funeral, using funds from the discretionary reserve from this fiscal year’s budget.
The funeral will be held at Grand Prince Hotel Shin Takanawa in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will serve as chairman of the ceremony.
The announcement of the cost instantly ignited criticism on social media.
Kato defended the Cabinet’s decision at a Sept. 28 news conference, saying, “It is an essential expense at a minimum cost.”
He also revealed that total expenses needed for the funeral would be about 190 million yen, which includes the government expenditure of 96.4 million yen.
“The cost is expected to be split between the Cabinet and the LDP,” he said.
Kato insisted the funeral service will be “simple” and that organizers “need to take all possible measure to ensure protocols to prevent the virus from further spreading.”
Yet, Kato acknowledged that costs have “increased a little” from the budget they had before the funeral was postponed. He said extra funds were needed for additional anti-virus measures.
In comparison, the government spent about 77 million yen for Miyazawa’s funeral in 2007.
Members of opposition parties were riled up because the discretionary reserve has also been used for measures to contain the novel coronavirus.
“I must say that the government has become so detached from reality by spending that much of taxpayers’ money on (the funeral),” Akira Koike of the Japanese Communist Party said at a Sept. 28 news conference. “Are they under the mistaken impression that the discretionary reserve is like a wallet that they can spend freely from?”
The central government on the same day held a committee meeting for the funeral at the prime minister’s office.
“Former Prime Minister Nakasone devoted all his energy for the prosperity of our nation. I earnestly ask you to make preparations for the funeral that will match his accomplishments,” Kato told vice ministers of the Cabinet Office and LDP officials.
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