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Japan’s Imperial Rescript on Education: How important was it in the Japanese American Experience?

Despite its value in teaching the cultural virtues of Japan to the Nisei in pre-WW II America, the Rescript could have been used against them.

An important aspect of the upbringing of the Nisei generation in most Nikkei communities before World War II was their training in the Japanese language. Being able to speak and write in the language of their Issei parents and thereby enabling them to communicate with them was necessary. But it was also a part of the cultural heritage the Issei wished to preserve.

In the classrooms, a part of the learning of the Japanese language was the memorization and recitation, in Japanese, of the Imperial Rescript on Education, a requirement of the education system of Japan that was transferred to the language schools in America. Under the guidance of Japanese instructors, the recitation and memorization by the students took the form of an oath or pledge much like the Pledge of Allegiance as recited in American schools.

Dating back to the era of the Meiji Restoration of Japan, during the reign of Emperor Meiji (1866 to 1912), the Rescript (called the Kyooiku Chokugo in Japanese) was signed in October 1890 and was based on the belief that in order to build a modern Japan, a code of morality was necessary for all Imperial subjects. Based on traditional Confucian and samurai ethics, the Rescript’s purpose was to move the country ahead under a national education system and a structure of national morality. The ethics defined the relationships among people, such as filial piety among children and parents; husband and wife; father and son and brothers. It was necessary to build a spirit of nationhood and love and respect for the Imperial traditions.

Some of the key passages of the Rescript, translated into English, were as follows:
"Ye, our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters, as husbands and wives, be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourself in modesty and moderation, extend your benevolence to all, pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual facilities and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and obey the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of the Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth"(italics added).

"So shall ye not only be our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers. The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendents and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may thus attain to the same virtue."
Signed the 30th day of the 10th month of the 23rd year of Meiji (October 20, 1890)

The moral teachings of the Rescript played a valuable role in the lives of families of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. Like any oath, the ideals of a perfect individual and family life served them well.

There was in the Rescript, however, wording that has been troublesome to the Nisei. The phrase: should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of our Imperial Throne raises questions. It thus commits one, in this context, to give oneself (one’s life to the Japanese military) to defend the emperor in time of war.

Thus, are the Nisei language students taking an oath to give their lives for the emperor? After the military leaders of Japan took control of the country prior to World War II, as a means of fomenting an ultra-nationalistic spirit in Japan, the Rescript was subverted into a strong instrument used to prepare the nation for war.

For the Nisei whose loyalty has always been with their country of birth, the words were not compelling and perhaps were considered to be just a part of the Rescript that had to be uttered. Most of them, if questioned, would not have taken the words seriously since the Rescript was from Japan and included in the curriculum taught in the U.S. To them, the basic commitment to Japanese morality having to do with right conduct were taken seriously and helped strengthen their families. But, to offer oneself courageously to the State and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of our Imperial Throne….. were meaningless words and no Nisei would have taken seriously.

As American citizens, there was no possibility that the Nisei would serve in the Japanese military so it was not a concern to them. But there could be a linkage between the words in question and how these words might have been used against the Japanese Americans. The most disturbing aspect of the words could have raised doubts in the minds of U.S. government officials about the loyalty of Japanese Americans. After all, the Rescript, if taken seriously as an oath, does raise that suspicion.

The most obvious evidence of this possibility came during the war when the internees were presented with the so-called "loyalty oath" which has since been discredited. Two questions in the questionnaire raised the greatest controversy - questions number 27 and 28. Question 28 is the most applicable here. It states as follows:

"Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?"

The connection between the words in the Rescript and question 28 are immediately obvious. Most Nisei, when they read "foreswear any allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor" were astounded that such a ridiculous and puzzling question could be asked and were insulted that such an insinuation could be made. Nevertheless, as absurd as the question was and the inference it makes, the wording in the Rescript may have been why question 28 was asked.

The history of the Japanese American experience has generated a great deal of interest, especially during the war years. By and large it has been a successful story that any Japanese American can be proud of. The question of loyalty was, however, what led to the injustices directed at them. Therefore, how the Rescript could have been interpreted is worth considering.

© 2008 Ike Hatchimonji

japanese language loyalty oath loyalty questionnaire rescript World War II