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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 21, 2010

Marching and morality

I have a request for those junior and high school teachers who make their students practice and perform military-style marches during PE classes, sports days and the like. Please, stop it! Kakko warui (it looks bad)! Dasai (it’s old fashioned)! Jikan no mottainai (it's a waste of time)!

I wonder who the teachers are trying to impress with these insipid performances. Certainly not the kids. My son doesn’t want to be a soldier. Very few kids do these days. They don’t even play with toy soldiers anymore... or haven’t you noticed? My son feels stupid acting like Private G.I. Jackboot and rightfully so, as the solemnity of the display reaches levels of near self-parody. Not only is rigid symmetry aesthetically unpleasing but it actually belies what should be the joyous nature of a sports day. Why mark it with what amounts to a displaced military parade?

You might say that all students should learn about adherence to set procedures and selfless teamwork. Fine. But if I wanted those qualities inculcated in this way I would have sent him to cadet school. I didn’t. Yes, I understand that military discipline and team precision, even mindless adherence to regimentation, might be useful for soldiers, firefighters and the like but- and please read this closely- no one sent their kids to your school for that reason! It’s a basic educational tenet- match the practice with the purpose!

Perhaps you might think that the students’ order and discipline will impress us. It doesn’t. It doesn’t show us a sense of discipline as much as it indicates that the students can be manipulated into performing meaningless regimented activities by someone who is more powerful than them. It shows us that, like circus animals, people can be coerced into performing mindless routines. Strangely, I do not find that impressive.

You might argue that it has some latent moral value- that it reflects concern for the other, submission to the group. But the moral message conveyed is actually quite the opposite. It tells students that if you have power you can, even should, harangue the less powerful with orders that serve no other purpose than to make them display submission. If that is the school’s notion of morality then I’m sorry but you’ve failed as teachers.

Morality is a matter of developing a set of principles that individuals can apply in ways that are ethically sound and harmonious. If your highest idea of ethics and social harmony is determining whether a child’s knees and elbows are symmetrical or not then your sense of morality is, frankly speaking, immature. Wouldn’t time be better spent having students work out thought-provoking moral case study dilemmas than forming lines in the gym and then marching rigidly in place for an hour?

In short, what students learn about morality from such displays is that morality is just an arbitrary force to be exerted upon others for the sake of exerting authority. Dog eat dog. Eat or be eaten. Is this the ethic you are trying to teach? If so, I don’t want you teaching my kids.

Now, you might think that I am one of those namby-pamby types who gets all misty-eyed about airy-fairy notions of self-expression and independent exploration (not that these are bad things). But you’d be wrong. I think discipline, order, and an active regard for others are foundations for a healthy society and that these virtues can be inculcated in microcosmic societies like public schools. But surely more thoughtful, complex, wide-reaching means of developing self-discipline exist than practicing rituals more suited to military service or disaster prevention units. In short, this stuff is out of place in a general education curriculum. And, if so, again the practice has not been suited to the purpose. As such, it represents a pedagogical failure on the part of the teachers.

I wonder about the grandmas and grandpas watching this spectacle and what they think. Does it bring back any memories of wartime? Do unpleasant associations with an unpleasant past arise? I also think about this society’s alleged valuing of the so-called ‘Peace Constitution’ and the aversion to almost anything that could even remotely look like an international military exercise. And when I think of these things somehow, these high school military parades seem very, ummm, un-Japanese.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Countries in which mass games, military parades, and rigid marching formations (not to mention local politicians haranguing the masses to ‘do your best’ over echo-drenched loudspeakers) are popular tend to be those whose regimes are hostile towards Japan. Why Japanese teachers would want to emulate societies whose values are antithetical to that of their own is beyond me. So, if you think these exercises are somehow related to ‘love of country’, well exactly which country are you talking about?

You might argue that this is a part of ‘Japanese culture’ and perhaps that as a non-Japanese I am not sensitive to such national cultural nuances but, as I’ve explained, there are significant sectors of indigenous Japanese society who equally loathe this type of display and don’t want their children to behave as if they are living in a foreign dictatorship or under a military regime. Something more, well, Japanese would be appropriate, don’t you think?

Also, while some appeals to culture can be substantial, if that appeal consists of little more than arguing, “Well, this is what we’ve always done” then that’s an insult to your ‘culture’. You’ve basically characterized your ‘culture’ as a product of mindless mimicry. Personally, I hold Japanese culture in higher regard than that.

You might wonder what concern this is to a university English teacher like myself. Other than the obvious fact that my own children are being educated in Japan I have very good reasons for questioning these goose-step routines. Universities should be places where students develop learner autonomy and take the bull by the horns, taking responsibility for their education, as they should be on the road to becoming independent learners and researchers, right? Except that’s not happening. Students arrive too passively, waiting for directives from the teacher. They are not prepared to take the lead, waiting for someone to give the orders, to show them the correct manoeuvres. This not only affects the quality of their education, but ultimately the quality of the product for Japanese society.

Part of a high school teacher’s role should be preparing students for university. But there’s a big difference between preparing students for university entrance exams and preparing them to be an actual university student. And right now the latter is not being addressed well. And the cause is most painfully evident when we watch these horrid military exercises on sports day.

« A gap in the university curriculum that you, O gaikokujin teacher, could fill | Main | What if university students don't appear to know even basic English? »


When it was time to enroll my kids in one of the two local kindergartens I asked only one question. Do they teach the kids to march for the school sports day event?

One school said yes and the other no. We went with the school that said no.

The answer to that simple question (which my wife thought was too weird to ask) really demonstrated the differences in educational philosophies between the two kindergartens.

Now the kids are in elementary school and the first grade teachers say they always can tell which kid went to which kindergarten.

What is your take on the ritualized bowing to start classes?

Regarding ritualized bowing (the kiritsu-rei-chakuseki routine)...

I think respect for others can and should be inculcated in the classroom. I have my doubts though that rituals really develop respect, as opposed to mere subservient compliance- which is not really 'respect' ,and would prefer to see respect and order developed through less regimented means.

At university, I find that some students, now liberatated from the kiritsu rituals, think it is perfectly fine to walk in late, come to the front while I'm talking to get their name card, and proceed to chat with friends about what's going on. In other words, lose the ritual- lose the respect. This implies not that the ritual worked, but that it failed, since it was obviously absorbed not as a means of developing an awareness of respect to others but as a mere Pavolvian reaction (under the guise of 'morality').

Additional reply to Treb above:
I've heard the same thing about how you can see who went to what kindergarten. I think the regimented approach may suit the development of certain personality types but I certainly don't see it as a general function of morality. I'm pretty sure, given your decision about your own child, that you feel the same way.

Right on! This is an excellent column about an important issue. According to John Taylor Gatto public schools were created by Prussia to defeat Napolean. The roots are war related. The military uniforms and exercises are a vestige. Thank heavens I haven't encountered that yet at my kids' schools.
John Spiri

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