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English education, territorial claims in spotlight in new guidelines

TOKYO, Feb. 14, Kyodo — Japanese elementary schools will start English education earlier and elementary and junior high schools are told to teach in classes that two disputed island groups are Japanese territory under new curriculum guidelines, the education ministry said Tuesday.

 

It is the first time that the ministry decided to state in the legally binding guidelines that the Takeshima islets, controlled by South Korea, and the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, claimed by China, are “inherent” parts of Japanese territory. South Korea immediately lodged a protest.

 

In a related move, the welfare ministry unveiled draft guidelines on nursery school management for fiscal 2018, which also for the first time cited the need for children to “get familiar with” the national flag and anthem. The flag and anthem have often been controversial in Japan because of their links to past militarism.

 

As for elementary, junior high and senior high schools, curriculum guidelines are revised roughly every 10 years. They show what must at least be taught to students. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology announced the draft of the next guidelines for elementary and junior high school education.

 

The ministry will formally publish the guidelines next month after soliciting public comments and fully implement them for elementary and junior high schools from fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021, respectively.

 

The ministry increased the amount of the papers by roughly 50 percent, adding details partly to support younger teachers.

 

The new guidelines for elementary education state that English learning will begin in the third grade as part of foreign language activities, rather than the fifth grade under the current guidelines.

 

They also call for introducing English as an individual subject from fifth grade, subsequently increasing the students’ weekly classroom hours by one period, or 45 minutes.

 

From the fifth grade in elementary school and in junior high school, the guidelines call for clearly stating that the Takeshima islets off Shimane Prefecture and the Senkaku Islands off Okinawa Prefecture are sovereign Japanese territory, in addition to the already stated Northern Territories off Hokkaido, reflecting the state’s textbook guidelines of 2014 that already use such expressions.

 

“Teachers have the responsibility to teach students so they understand the rightful claims of Japan,” a ministry official said in explaining the reason of the revision.

 

South Korea controls the Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan, calling them Dokdo, and China claims the Japanese-controlled Senkakus in the East China Sea as the Diaoyu islands. The ministry also said it does not expect teachers to teach the two Asian neighbors’ claims “in parallel” with Japan’s position on the issues.

 

The South Korean Foreign Ministry summoned Hideo Suzuki, minister at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, to lodge a protest the same day.

 

The guidelines particularly emphasize the Senkakus, stating teachers should teach that Japan’s official position is that there is “no dispute” over their sovereignty.

 

Computer programming will also become a requisite in elementary school this round, with the ministry expecting it to be used for arithmetical drawings and for learning the characteristics of electricity, as well as for gathering information for more general studies.

 

In the new guidelines for nursery school management that will take effect in April next year, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare called for children aged 3 or older to “get familiar with the national flag through ceremonies in and outside” the schools.

 

The guidelines also said children should “get familiar with the national anthem, school and old children’s songs, and traditional Japanese games.”

 

A similar phrase was seen in the draft of the new guidelines for kindergarten education, which the education ministry released the same day.

 

The welfare ministry denied any intention to “force” nursery schools to hoist Japan’s flag and sing the national anthem.

 

But some experts warned that the guidelines should not be used to put “excessive pressure” on nursery centers because they should be institutions to provide welfare services and not education facilities.

 

Parents were divided over the move, with some criticizing it as “abnormal” and others taking it positively.

 

“I feel a political intention of placing emphasis in nurturing patriotism. I’m worried obedient children might take a biased view,” said a 32-year-old company worker in western Tokyo who leaves his 4-year-old daughter at a nursery center.

 

Meanwhile, a 33-year-old government employee in the capital who has a 6-year-old son said it is “good” that children learn about the country they live in at an early stage.

 

“I hope schools will teach issues including the negative aspects (of the national anthem) linked to war,” she said.

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