In 1932, Matsushita Kōnosuke, the founder of Panasonic, had an epiphany. On visiting the headquarters of the religion Tenrikyō, he was inspired by the sense of collective commitment he witnessed there. In a subsequent speech to Panasonic employees, Matsushita laid out a new guiding philosophy for his fledgling corporation: ‘Human beings need both material and spiritual prosperity. Religion guides people out of suffering toward happiness and peace of mind. And business, too, can contribute by providing physical necessities required for happiness. This should be its primary mission.’ (This translation is from the Panasonic website; all translations that follow are my own.) For Matsushita, work was none other than a ‘holy pursuit’ (sei naru jigyō).
Matsushita later attributed the stunning financial success of his corporation to this 1932 epiphany. He equated corporate flourishing with improvements in national standards of living, and he conflated Panasonic’s ascendancy with global salvation. For him, everyone benefited when people had been trained to work indefatigably for a collective mission.
In a speech on 21 April 1961, Matsushita pushed the idea further, impressing upon his employees that their job was to ‘make people before products’. Panasonic certainly made goods, the corporate magnate acknowledged, but the company also made the assiduous individuals who manufactured its cutting-edge electronics and marketed them to the world. By extension, Panasonic sales teams ‘made people’ (hitozukuri) in another sense, using skilful marketing to form the very consumers who dutifully purchased Panasonic’s wares.
As a corporate ethos, Matsushita’s hitozukuri concept was groundbreaking, and over the years many other corporations borrowed his philosophy and leadership style. But the concept of ‘making persons’ achieved even broader reach as national policy. Just a year after Matsushita’s epochal declaration, Japan’s prime minister Ikeda Hayato adopted hitozukuri in 1962 as a guiding principle for his administration, describing the concept as ‘gaining trust from the world by valuing morality, cultivating virtue, loving the nation and its people, and developing skills and techniques.’ As this rather ambiguous definition reveals, the hitozukuri slogan was both vague and inspiring. As politics, it made for a good soundbite, but as policy it was difficult to explain. Its outcomes were impossible to measure, and the phrase also did not translate well: members of Ikeda’s cabinet struggled to find a suitable English rendition as they prepared for a diplomatic trip to the United States in 1962.
The notion of ‘making persons’ had a certain logic that did translate across borders in that early 1960s Cold War context. It reflected the shared presupposition among the capitalist nations that ‘religious capitalism’ was the antithesis of ‘godless communism’. According to this vision, First World prosperity emerged directly from piety, and religiosity favourably distinguished capitalists from their allegedly amoral communist counterparts.
To be sure, politicians asserted this causal relationship more than they actually explained it. With the benefit of historical hindsight and critical distance, it is clear that there was always a preposterous quality to the ideological claim. It was preposterous because it literally put ends before beginnings: post/pre. We are rich because we are religious. We must become religious if we want to get rich.
Of course, good politicking and persuasive policy-making are not necessarily about reason or logic. Sometimes a policy just has to feel good; sometimes a slogan just needs to intuitively ‘click’. Using Matsushita’s hitozukuri catchphrase to tidily describe his stated goal of doubling Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP), Ikeda persuasively paired the project of inculcating personal probity with the pursuit of collective prosperity. In Japan at the Crossroads (2018), the historian Nick Kapur says that Ikeda’s plan amounted to ‘a sort of secular religion of both the Japanese people and their government, bringing about a circumstance in which both the effectiveness of the government and the worth of the populace came to be measured above all by the annual percentage change in GDP.’
Commentators saw a lack of religious guidance as the source of Japan’s delinquency (hikō) problem
But the causal connections Ikeda posited between economic growth and religion were even more direct than Kapur suggests. For Ikeda, religion was a bare necessity akin to food or shelter. ‘Some say that Japan lacks sufficient housing, but I think what we really lack is religiosity,’ he remarked at an event in 1961. ‘Whether it is [praying to] the kami or the buddhas or the sun, whichever is fine,’ he said in another context. ‘Sincerely praying and reflecting – we’re going to make that kind of person.’ The prime minister was on record stating repeatedly that religion was indispensable for generating national prosperity. In short, Japanese workers did not just need technical skills. They needed a sense of vocation.
Despite some journalistic scoffing, the policy of ‘making persons’ gradually gained public approbation. The Mainichi newspaper editorial columnist Gotō Teiji wrote in the November 1962 issue of Seishōnen mondai (‘Youth Problems’) that Ikeda’s policy would balance religious faith and morality with technical skill and professional expertise ‘like two wheels of a car’. In an essay in the same magazine in April 1963, the Yomiuri newspaper associate editor Aikawa Shigeyoshi lamented Japan’s inability to compete economically with European and North American nations due to the ‘spiritual inferiority’ and lacklustre ‘social morals’ of Japan’s citizenry, but praised Ikeda for pairing the urgent problem of raising Japan’s standard of living with the equally exigent problem of addressing juvenile crime.
The idea that internalised religious doctrines were the engines of economic growth was appealing in 1960s Japan not only because the nation was undergoing rapid reconstruction after the devastating firebombing of virtually all its major cities during the Second World War. It was also appealing because, like Aikawa, many observers described post-defeat society as morally defunct. Editorials repeatedly referred to Japan as a ‘spiritual vacuum’ or a ‘moral vacuum’. Sensationalist media coverage had also been documenting rising methamphetamine use, sexual licentiousness, theft and violence among Japan’s youth. In addition, the nation had watched with rapt fascination as tens of thousands of students mobilised in protest of the US-Japan Security Treaty in the summer of 1960.
Stunned by the fractious protests and appalled by the antisocial antics documented in films such as Hani Susumu’s Furyō shōnen (Bad Boys, 1961), many expert commentators saw a lack of religious guidance as the source of Japan’s delinquency (hikō) problem. For example, the Daiei Film studio president and film producer Nagata Masaichi complained in a contemporaneous interview that Japan’s youth went to extremes ‘because they lack [religious] faith’. Thus, when the prime minister declared hitozukuri as national policy, he was advancing an alluring vision: if only we can figure out how to make young people more religious, Ikeda was arguing, we’ll solve the juvenile delinquency problem and get rich while doing it, too.
Ikeda’s hitozukuri catchphrase was appealing to many, but it was a slogan in search of a policy. The prime minister had tossed out the vaguely defined concept and then doubled down on it, but his administration had to identify the characteristics of the ideal worker-citizen so that the ‘making persons’ process had a clear target. Officials turned to Japan’s public schools as the obvious place to begin. In June 1963, Ikeda’s minister of education tasked the Central Council for Education to identify the salient features of the ‘human figure’ (ningenzō) that would be the end product of the hitozukuri process. Simply put: if making persons was the foreordained agenda, then what traits did the ideal human possess, and how could those traits be reverse-engineered through education?
This Central Council for Education is a deliberative body of civilians that advises Japan’s Ministry of Education. Members typically include luminaries such as university presidents, corporate leaders and leading journalists. Unlike the relatively decentralised approach to educational policy that reigns in countries such as the US, in Japan the Ministry of Education (now called the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, or MEXT) has fairly tight control over the national curriculum. Factional infighting within the Ministry and resistance from teachers’ unions have sometimes impeded the smooth implementation of Ministry policy, and classroom teachers sometimes ignore Ministry policies they do not like. But, in general, the Ministry is a powerful actor that directly affects classroom experience at all levels of education. Ostensibly, the Central Council for Education serves as a check on Ministry authority while aligning Ministry policies with the perceived needs of Japanese society. In practice, members of the Council typically act as rubber stamps more than they serve as watchdogs, hewing fairly closely to Ministry agendas and giving the imprimatur of civilian oversight to policies that are basically foregone conclusions.
Thus, when Ikeda asked the Council for recommendations in 1963, he was basically asking for a pedagogical policy that would match his chosen political slogan. Even with Matsushita, the author of the hitozukuri concept, on the Council, coming up with a defensible policy was a heavy lift. It required the Council to devise an ex post facto rationale for why educators needed to focus attention on ‘making persons’ in the first place; it also required the Council to concoct a legally defensible way to introduce confessional instruction into Japan’s public schools without violating the prohibition of ‘religious education’ outlined in Article 20, Clause 3 of Japan’s Constitution. Given the delicate nature of the task, a subcommittee met no fewer than 17 times over 18 months before it released an interim report titled ‘The Human Figure That Can Be Hoped For/Counted On’ (Kitai sareru ningenzō) on 11 January 1965. Although by this point Ikeda had resigned as prime minister due to illness, the government now had a concrete statement of what the ideal ‘human figure’ looked like, and the Ministry had the silhouette of a new policy.
The report depicted scientific discovery and technological progress as inimical to sublime ‘human nature’
As my deliberately awkward translation suggests, the passive construction of the interim report’s Japanese title had two meanings. On the one hand, with its expectant tone, the Special Committee was signalling that it had identified the specific characteristics of the type of person who would be created as part of the hitozukuri process. On the other hand, the report deployed another meaning of kitai sareru, suggesting that the product of secondary public education was someone who could be ‘counted on’. It thus implied that, as educational policy, the ‘human figure’ could resolve the continuing concerns about Japan’s allegedly misbehaved, rambunctious youth.
If the passive construction was ambiguous, the focus on the ‘human’ made the report’s objective clear. Identifying a salient feature of ‘contemporary civilisation’ as the rise of the natural sciences and the explosion of technology, the Committee lamented ‘mechanisation’ (kikaika) that spurred people to think of human beings as little more than replaceable cogs in the industrial machine. Likewise, the Committee decried what it called the ‘animalisation’ (dōbutsuka) of human beings in the face of the natural sciences, which deprived people of their inherent dignity and valorised hedonistic tendencies. (Presumably, the Committee meant that scientific approaches that reduced humans to mere byproducts of evolutionary processes tended to convince people that their only real purpose was to consume and reproduce.)
The stakes were high. Clearly Japanese people needed to have the technical expertise to accommodate themselves to the science-driven Space Age. But the report depicted scientific discovery and technological progress as inimical to sublime ‘human nature’. If Japan had to increase its technological progress as part of keeping up and getting ahead, the authors averred, then a countervailing spiritual force was indispensable. And if increasing technical know-how while improving human character was the problem, then religious training was a reasonable solution. ‘The whole world marvels at the economic recovery happening now in Japan. However, this economic prosperity has generated hedonistic tendencies in some quarters, giving birth to a spiritual vacuum. If this situation of unfettered desire and empty spiritual ideals continues for very long, we cannot at all expect economic prosperity to continue,’ warned the authors of the 1966 report.
When the authors turned to the positive project of describing the ideal ‘human figure’, their list of desirable traits included freedom, individuality, reliability, creativity, and happiness. However, their use of the second-person imperative tone gave the report a confessional, catechistic cast. For example, in a section titled ‘Be a Happy Person’, the authors acknowledged that life was full of injustices and dissatisfaction, but said one should develop a sense of gratitude anyway: ‘A person who can be grateful for even a small act of goodwill or kindness is a happy person,’ they wrote. Such a person felt indebtedness to their parents, their ethnic group (minzoku), the human species, and the cosmic life force (uchū no seimei). Adopting a theological tone, the authors argued that respect for the ‘spiritual life force’ (seishin teki na seimei ) that resided within all humans constituted true religious sentiment and was the source of both human dignity and happiness.
Meanwhile, if the human being was essentially religious, then society was a ‘place of production’ that required individuals to exert themselves for others. ‘To merely pursue satisfaction of animalistic cravings will not at all satisfy the spiritual desires of the heart,’ wrote the authors. And time off was no different than work: ‘Originally, holidays and weekends had the significance of having been established to worship deities,’ they admonished readers. ‘Leisure time must not be used to pursue animalistic desires, but rather to recover our humanity.’
With the Japanese government clearly embracing ‘spiritual’ interpretations of Japan’s problems, it was up to teachers to generate ‘spiritual’ solutions. Educators did not hesitate. Even as the special committee was hashing out its interim report, contributors to education journals had already begun pondering the significance of the ‘human figure’ for classroom pedagogy. Strikingly, many of these experts independently came to the conclusion that the defining feature of the ideal ‘human figure’ was religion. For example, in a roundtable conversation featured in a special issue of the journal Kyōiku shinri (‘Educational Psychology’) in January 1964, the education specialist Suzuki Kiyoshi suggested that religious sentiment formed the basis of human nature and must be cultivated along with a strong sense of national citizenship. Suzuki was hardly alone. In a special issue of the journal Sōgō kyōiku gijutsu (‘Integrated Educational Techniques’) in May 1964, for example, essayists linked religiosity to patriotism and professionalism in essays with titles such as ‘The Japanese Person the Contemporary Moment Requires’, ‘The Essence of Humanity and Religious Education’, and ‘How Should We Interpret and Conduct Patriotic Education?’
A striking feature of these essays was their shared reliance on the sociological theories of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. For example, in the essay ‘The Japanese Person the Contemporary Moment Requires’ (1964), the educational historian Karasawa Tomitarō described how internalised religious ideals could produce professionalism. Citing Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Karasawa claimed that a Christian sense of vocation (tenshokukan) was the psychological impetus that had spurred the rise of modern capitalism in Europe and the US. By extension, a similar sense of a higher calling could do the same for Japan: ‘One’s profession is not a simple means of making a living, but rather a concrete method for personal perfection and demonstrating one’s contributions to society as a citizen.’
For these Japanese intellectuals, The Protestant Ethic was a how-to manual
If Karasawa saw work in Weberian terms, the prominent scholar of religion Ishizu Teraji channelled Durkheim, bluntly asserting in his own essay that ‘Homo sapiens is essentially a religious entity’. For him, religion was not merely the thing that distinguished humans from other animal species. It was also the very thing that made people both altruistic and resilient in the face of challenges or failure. Religion fostered tenacity and social cohesion alike.
As these essays suggest, sociological theories generated in Europe and the US provided normative models for social life under high-growth capitalism. They did not merely describe capitalist society. For these Japanese intellectuals, The Protestant Ethic was a how-to manual. Weber’s and Durkheim’s theories provided reassuring ideas about how religion could generate solidarity in an increasingly atomised society while also suggesting that ‘the kids these days’ (gendaikko) could internalise diligence and perseverance with the aid of religion. As the education expert Fukagawa Tsunenobu put it during a 1967 roundtable discussion, the new policy did not merely describe the ‘human figure we can hope for’, but boldly envisioned the ‘religious human we all want’.
Whatever Fukagawa and others may have wanted, the ‘human figure’ initiative harboured a fundamental problem that Ministry of Education officials were never able to fully resolve, even after they formally adopted ‘The Human Figure That Can Be Hoped For/Counted On’ as official policy in 1966: Japan’s 1947 Constitution strictly prohibited confessional instruction. If the ideal ‘human figure’ was essentially religious, there was no legally feasible way for teachers to create it in Japan’s public schools. And the problem was not just about the law. It was also about deep political divisions in Japanese society, as influential Leftist organisations such as the Japan Teacher’s Union (JTU) decried the ‘human figure’ policy as authoritarian and vague. For example, an article in the JTU monthly magazine Kyōiku hyōron (‘Education Review’) in 1965 linked ‘government-manufactured morality’ with unfair labour conditions, arguing that the hitozukuri policy ultimately aimed to ‘cultivate skilled labourers who would work obediently for low pay’.
In the mid-1960s, some education experts began experimenting with new terminology that would allow them to bypass Japan’s constitutional prohibition on confessional instruction while staying in the good graces of the obstreperous teachers’ unions. These initiatives, which gradually coalesced under the rubric of ‘religious sentiment education’ (shūkyō jōsō kyōiku) failed to get serious uptake. But, in the meantime, the ‘human figure’ initiative gave clerics a ripe opportunity to make a case for allowing religious instruction in Japan’s public schools. Buddhists had already established the National Youth Edification Conference (Zenkoku Seishōnen Kyōka Kyōgikai, NYEC hereafter) in November 1962, mere months after the prime minister, Ikeda, announced his hitozukuri policy. By February 1963, NYEC had held its first three-day study meeting on ‘The Problems of Moral Edification and Contemporary Youth’, where participants discussed basic educational principles. By 1963, NYEC began publishing the education periodicals Oshie no izumi (‘The Fountain of the Teaching’) and Nikkō kyōan (‘Sunday School Lesson Plans’), and by December 1964 the organisation had released a short book titled Bukkyō no ningenzō (‘Buddhism’s Human Figure’).
A foreword to that volume repeated the commonsensical claim that global society faced unprecedented problems due to the advancements of science and technology, economic growth and the rise of mass media. But, throughout Buddhist history, enlightened individuals (senkakusha) had repeatedly endured countless hardships to respond to the needs of their time. Thus, an appropriate ‘Buddhist image of the human’ for the present day should not be some sort of abstract ideal with no grounding in daily life. Rather, it would develop true Buddhist awakening: ‘Right now within each of us is a strong version of ourselves that can appropriately and dispassionately observe the causes and conditions that inform the phenomenon of impermanence,’ wrote the NYEC authors. ‘Understanding that the things that are subject to change will inevitably change, this [strong] self must itself become unchangeable. To be able to discover the self in this way is to be human.’
There was no legally permissible way to make kids more religious in public schools
Having laid out this guiding vision, the authors offered a series of short aphoristic statements that exhorted readers to practise benevolence and compassion while rejecting crass materialism and shallow frivolity. Rather than being a mere cog in a machine at work, one must cultivate a sense of mission (shimeikan). A sense of satisfaction would result, allowing one to appreciate the joys in life while also recognising that all things are inevitably subject to change: ‘Moved by the fact that we are gifted with life, we have a mission to work to the full extent of our abilities in society. With humility and unwavering faith, we want to become humans who strive for the happiness of all humanity.’
The fact that this Buddhist tract was reprinted at least 10 times within a year of its initial publication suggests that it had an eager audience. For example, the book garnered fulsome praise from Buddhist luminaries such as Tomomatsu Entai, who admired its practicality while emphasising the language of ‘mission’. When viewed as a means of self-improvement, one’s profession could even be a ‘shortcut’ to Buddhahood, Tomomatsu averred. Journalists writing for the mainstream Yomiuri newspaper also praised the Buddhist initiative as ‘putting some meat on the bones’ of the human figure policy. And the Japanese Buddhist Federation followed up in the October 1966 issue of its monthly journal Zenbutsu tsūshin (‘Japan Buddhist News’) with articles that described education as the ‘original mission’ of Buddhism and enumerated guiding principles for linking Buddhist cultivation with public instruction. In the US and Europe, Christianity may have spurred the rise of capitalism, but in Japan it would be Buddhism that created diligent workers and a prosperous future.
Ultimately, the ‘human figure’ posited by Buddhists lay slightly askew to the ‘human figure’ imagined by the Ministry of Education. And the ‘human figure’ concept itself was becoming increasingly blurry in educational circles. Facing truculent opposition from the JTU and having little legal leeway to develop the pious subject that was its stated outcome, the ‘human figure’ gradually faded into obscurity. The quiet failure of the policy revealed the shortcomings of its preposterous premise: for all of the asserted causal links between piety and prosperity, there was no legally permissible way to make kids more religious in public schools, no reliable way of proving that confessional instruction engendered morality in the first place, no accurate way to measure ‘morality’, and no way to prove that moral virtue enhanced technical competence.
Yet the ignominious death of the human figure policy did not mean that Japanese educators wholly abandoned their efforts to create the ideal human. The alluring notion that a Weberian sense of vocation could engender both personal probity and national prosperity survived in modified form, informing the pedagogical orientations of a new kind of for-profit corporation that took up the Cold War-era task of endowing students with a sense of self-abnegation in pursuit of a mission.
In his landmark study Japan’s New Middle Class (1963), the US sociologist Ezra Vogel showed that Japanese suburbanites experienced a highly stratified society in which prominent businessmen exemplified the white-collar success that others aspired to, but did not always attain. Competition for wealth and prestige led families to send their children to schools that offered greater chances for social advancement. For-profit academies responded to this new normal by offering private tutoring to students after school hours, on weekends and during holiday breaks. Promising improved results on entrance examinations to prestigious middle and high schools as well as universities, these juku (‘cram schools’) were an attractive addition to the Japanese educational system for many families.
Japanese journalists observed the juku phenomenon with fascination. The Yomiuri newspaper began an article series titled ‘The Two Schools’. With more than 3,000 private academies in Tokyo alone and 30,000 nationwide, it was clear that juku had already become a prominent part of the Japanese educational system by the time the series started in January 1964. But opinions on the juku were divided. Positive takes saw it as a partner in the education of a child, as in a story about a public school teacher whose child, young ‘Mr T’, struggled to perform academically until he encountered the small-group instruction that his juku provided. By contrast, negative takes highlighted the high-stakes competition that the juku environment encouraged. Chilling quotes from housewives in Tokyo’s upwardly mobile Suginami Ward revealed a cut-throat scramble for educational advantage. In a world in which academic credentials were highly valued, a diploma from a famous university was a ‘passport’ to employment at an elite company, which in turn guaranteed the high salary that came with white-collar employment. One reporter observed that parents risked turning their children into avaricious drones. As if to prove the point, when asked why they studied so hard, children answered in a disturbingly direct fashion: ‘To get rich.’
The pursuit of wealth through academic advancement came at great cost. One story on such ‘human investment’ (ningen tōshi) featured a middle schooler in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward who used four separate supplemental education service providers each week: piano lessons once a week, juku three days a week, an in-home tutor twice a week, and academic advancement lessons on Sundays. Yet even as parents recognised that their household budgets could not sustain such expenditures, anxieties about their children’s futures fostered further investments in supplemental services. Expenses related to ordinary school also mounted: textbooks, supplies, lunches, PTA memberships, class fees, field trips. It was impossible for the poor to keep up. ‘If parents continue to compete with one another by spending unreasonable amounts of money like this, it will effectively result in educational discrimination,’ said one former elementary school principal.
Juku trained students to endure long hours pursuing arbitrary goals set by draconian bosses
Competition for clients drove juku operators just as much as competition for prestige drove parents. Under pressure to provide individualised instruction to ever-growing numbers of students, juku managers invested thousands of dollars in cutting-edge equipment like the Ricoh Synchrofax (a machine that used magnetised paper to reproduce short, four-minute recorded lessons that students could listen to with earphones). Although representatives of the juku industry stressed that this advanced technology supplemented, but did not supplant, the ‘human influence that is the hallmark of the juku’, a Yomiuri news correspondent tartly remarked that, even in the highly mechanised Space Age, excessive use of technology ran the risk of making robotic ‘humans who do not think’.
Unthinking robots and greedy drones. For all the focus on the ‘human figure’, Japan’s high-stakes education system was utterly dehumanising.
Despite critiques, over the late 1960s and into the early ’70s, juku became largely unquestioned components of Japan’s educational ecosystem. Between normal school hours, club activities like sports, juku, commuting time and homework, students could spend 15 or 16 uninterrupted hours a day developing the academic aptitude and social connections that would help them get ahead. Thus, in addition to ostensibly improving students’ chances of admission into coveted high schools and institutions of higher learning, juku did something else: they trained students to endure long hours pursuing arbitrary goals set by draconian bosses. These were the very qualities they would be required to demonstrate as Japan’s future white-collar workers.
Policymakers had looked to religions to inculcate a sense of ‘mission’ in Japanese youths, but ultimately it was the for-profit corporation that took on the role of imbuing them with the desired characteristics of diligence and self-abnegation. Although the Japanese government had made cultivating the ‘human figure’ an official national agenda in 1966, by 1976 the Japanese media treated Japan’s education system as astonishingly inhumane.
The ironies did not end there. When these young people grew up to exhibit the traits that this dehumanising arrangement had demanded of them, professional observers denied them the very thing that they had been exhorted to demonstrate all along. ‘The boundary that separates the “new human species” from the old is the birth year 1960, the year of the Security Treaty and the start of the period of high economic growth,’ asserted a short column in the Asahi newspaper in September 1985. ‘Raised by television and surrounded by media, they have no direct knowledge of poverty. Their defining characteristics are frivolity, [use of] digital [media], and [reliance on] manuals.’
Allegedly lazy, selfish and superficial, the very people who had been raised to be ideal ‘human figures’ were now not even human at all.