TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government yesterday pushed through landmark laws requiring Japanese schools to encourage patriotism in the classroom and elevating the Defense Agency to the status of a full ministry for the first time since World War II.
Both measures are considered cornerstones of Abe's conservative agenda to bolster Japan's military status and rebuild national pride in a country that had long associated patriotism with its imperialist past.
The legislation cleared the upper house of Parliament yesterday after winning approval in the lower house last month, and will go into effect early next year.
Abe, Japan's first prime minister born after World War II, had made overhauling education a key issue during his campaign to succeed Junichiro Koizumi in September. His bid to restore patriotism in schools has drawn harsh criticism from Japanese pacifists, who have argued that such a law echoes the state-sponsored indoctrination of children practiced by Japan's past military leaders.
But Abe and other proponents have countered that a renewed embrace of patriotism is an essential step forward for Japan as it gradually emerges from a decades-long sense of guilt over World War II. In recent years, for example, local municipalities have begun enforcing laws requiring the national anthem to be sung and the Japanese flag flown at certain school ceremonies, despite objections from teachers' unions, which remain one of the last bastions of pacifism in Japan.
The education overhaul law is likely to dramatically increase the number of schools using revisionist textbooks, which have been heralded by conservatives in Japan, but decried by wartime victims -- particularly China and South Korea -- as whitewashing its past aggression.
Such books, for example, omit the reference to "comfort women," a euphemism for the thousands of Asian women forced into sexual bondage by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.
"The revision bears the historic significance of clearly showing the fundamental idea of education for a new era," Abe said in a statement lauding the law's passage.
Also passed was a key set of bills upgrading Japan's Defense Agency -- created in 1954 following the end of the American occupation of Japan -- to the status of a full ministry.
The move affords greater clout to defense officials in national policymaking and budget decisions, something long considered taboo in Japan in the decades following the war.
The primary mission of Japan's Self Defense Forces -- whose role had long been strictly defined as defense of the home islands -- will be expanded to include overseas peacekeeping missions.
Japan dispatched non combat troops to Iraq from 2004 until earlier this year, but only after Koizumi won special authority from Parliament.
The elevation to ministry status also paves the way for the passage of more specific laws that would give Japan greater flexibility to dispatch its forces to international hot spots.