As a third generation Japanese American, I didn’t have much of a connection to Japan. It seemed much too expensive for a visit, and like others of my generation, my life was in America. However, in my late forties I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship for a month in Japan along with a team of 12 educators from throughout the United States. It was an opportunity for me to discover my cultural heritage and understand my life experience as a Japanese American woman. One of the moments that impacted me the most was standing on ground zero at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, imagining the 175,000 children and adults killed in an instant from the atomic bomb. I also had an “ah-hah” moment after seeing photographs of the young boys in Japan who were sent to war -- they looked nothing like the images that were depicted in America. Going to Japan put in context the experience of my family, which was forcibly incarcerated in the camps at Manzanar during World War II, and it gave me an understanding of who I am and where I’ve come from.
Five years later I began the Coalition for Alternatives to Militarism in our Schools (CAMS). I was employed as a Speech and Language Specialist at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles and saw first-hand how military recruiters work in the inner-city schools. I felt compelled to take action and began an organized effort reaching out to nonprofit organizations, school communities and the teachers’ union, UTLA.
CAMS developed a multi-tiered approach to addressing militarism in the schools, including an Adopt-a-School Project at 50 high schools in the Los Angeles area. We also organized at the district level by monitoring and passing district policies that addressed student privacy, the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), equal access and JROTC. Through UTLA, a progressive union, we brought information and education around militarism through resolutions, workshops, conferences, dialogue and organizing strategies. We later became one of the founding organizations of the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY).
By working through the union, we opened up the platform to inform the educational community about issues of militarism and the alternatives, seeking opportunities to influence our local, state and national teachers’ union affiliates. In 2007, I attended my first NEA Representative Assembly as an elected delegate from California. It was there that I met five Japanese people at the Peace and Justice Caucus table in the exhibit hall. I was shocked to learn that they had come all the way from Japan, hoping to share their plight and gain support for the struggle that the rank-and–file teachers were encountering. I learned that the teachers in Japan were facing suppression of their freedom of thought and conscience. Forced mandates required them to support new militaristic practices. Shortly after Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Japan decided to send its troops to the battlefield for the first time since 1945. In line with that move, the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education issued a directive that secondary teachers stand during graduation ceremonies while the “Hinomaru” flag (which glorifies war) was hoisted and the “Kimigayo” hymn (a song to the Emperor) was played. Since this directive was given on October 23, 2003, 422 teachers and workers have been punished for disobeying in Tokyo (where the law is most strictly enforced), and more than 1500 throughout Japan. Their punishments have included pay cuts, fines, “reeducation sessions,” involuntary transfers, and the threat of firing. I was amazed that so many teachers refused the status quo in a society that thrives on conformity and obedience to authority.
Although those resisting called upon the Japanese Teachers Union to support their struggle, JTU has not only remained silent but has silenced the teachers, excluded them from union events, and even called the police to attack their own union members. JTU has not opposed the disciplinary measures imposed on the dissident teachers even though the union motto established after World War II is: “We will never send our students to the battlefield again.” I think that those of us in the U.S. may not fully understand the significance of the flag in Japan and the strong nationalism that prevailed as the Japanese people gave their unquestioning obedience to the Emperor. The flag not only represented pride in the nation, but also the slaughter of millions in the imperialist conquest that became the shame of Japan. Unlike the U.S. flag, which represents the freedom of the states from Great Britain, the Japanese flag represents imperialism and war.
Japanese teachers were, without a doubt, stunned to hear about the blatant and aggressive military recruitment in American schools. But they also learned that the educational policies of the No Child Left Behind Act are very similar to the political agenda that has hit Japan. “We are about five years behind you,” said one teacher who wanted to learn how our unions are addressing the attacks on public education, coupled with the increasing militarism.
Increasing militarism in Japanese society and the forced compliance of teachers is but one dimension of the attacks. A teacher wrote that in Japan the conditions and contents of education have been under strict control by the centralized state power. Since the beginning of the 1990s the ruling class has been striving to widen inequality in education -- more money for elitist education and budget cuts for others. In earlier years such as the 1960s there was a mass movement of protest and a teachers’ strike that prevented mandated nationwide achievement tests. But recently various tools have been forcefully re-introduced: standardized tests, school choice, evaluation and ranking of schools, union busting, wage cuts, “Hinomaru” and “Kimigayo,” revising Japanese text books, a revision of their Fundamental Laws of Education, and a new Licensure Reauthorization renewal requirement. Furthermore, Japan has experienced an economic crisis since the 1990s that has resulted in greater poverty, homelessness and lack of jobs while scandals and corruption have increased. The people have been protesting against the U.S. military bases and the privatization of the railway and postal service for more than 25 years. The results of the recent Japanese elections no doubt reflect the rising discontent and willingness of the Japanese people to demand change in their government, augmenting a movement of rank and file educators, workers, students and union leaders that has been growing for many years.
CAMS and many in UTLA have supported our Japanese sisters and brothers since hearing of their struggle. We have collected petitions regarding the issues facing the students and teachers, visited the Japanese Embassy in LA, and participated in their annual International Solidarity Rally of workers, unionists and teachers since November 2007. We spoke at the 2008 anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and led teachers’ workshops in various cities throughout Japan.
Last June, two years after our first encounter, a Japanese team of four teachers and labor union activists came to visit the NEA convention once more, this time in San Diego. We set up a series of informal exchanges with teachers, students and counter-recruitment activists from UTLA and Project YANO. It led to deeper and further connections.
In July 2009 the NEA Representative Assembly passed New Business Item #20:
Using existing communication vehicles (including the NEA Today and the NEA website) the NEA will work with Education International to publish updates on the attacks on academic freedom internationally in such places as Japan, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Mexico and other nations.
Presently we are arranging for a rank-and-file union leader, who led the boycott of the periodic assessment exams in UTLA, to travel to Japan as an international speaker for the International Solidarity Rally on November 1, 2009. She will also hold workshops for teachers and update them on our current struggles with privatization in Los Angeles Unified School District.
I am amazed that my personal journey has found its way back to Japan. It saddens me that the militarism in the “belly of the beast” — the U.S. — has devastating implications for the rest of the world. Yet I am grateful to be part of the solution in forging international solidarity and working together with sisters and brothers in our common struggles.
Learn more at www.militaryfreeschools.org and join us in stopping the militarism in our schools – both here and abroad.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/)