Japanese step up research cash fight

June 16, 2006

Academics across Japan are lobbying to block legislation that they believe threatens the autonomy of universities and gives the Education Ministry the authority to allocate government research funds.

Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister, has a two-thirds majority to push the Bill through parliament. But he is unlikely to bring it to the vote before the end of the current session on June 18.

"We have a bit of time now," said Yosuke Yotoriyama, associate professor of education at Niigata University, who is at the forefront of the lobby.

"Over the summer vacation, we'll have to work on raising public awareness of what's about to happen. If we succeed, there is still a chance we might block it. I fear we might end up with an education system that is worse than the one we had before the war."

A number of academics critical of government policies were persecuted when Japan was under military rule. The most celebrated example was Yukitoki Takigawa, professor of criminal law at Kyoto University, who resigned in 1933 under pressure from the Education Minister.

The Fundamental Law of Education was enacted in 1947 to safeguard education from "unjust control", redefining its objective as "the full development of individuality".

The new Bill grants the ministry the power to intervene at all levels of education. It commits universities to "make a contribution to society and to its development" through their research work and sets out concepts such as "love of one's country" and "respect for Japanese tradition" as key objectives for schools.

The legislation gives the ministry power to draw up a "fundamental plan for education promotion" for the country. This in turn gives the ministry a fiscal leverage to award grants for research that accords with the plan.

"The ministry will determine who receives grants and for what purpose,"

Professor Yotoriyama said.

Asaho Mizushima, professor of law at Waseda University, added: "Money is the most effective weapon for corrupting academic freedom." He expressed fears that independent, risk-taking research could be discouraged.

Current government policy is to direct funds to science and technology that has immediate application to Japanese industry, academics say. As a result, grants for basic science, such as the one that made possible chemist Hideki Shirakawa's Nobel-winning discoveries in 2000, have been cut.

Non-scientific research has also faced cutbacks.

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