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TOKYO (Reuters) - A push for patriotic content on the ethics syllabus on Japanese schools is rekindling fears that children will be taught to take a less critical view of the country's militarist past and a more submissive attitude to government.
The campaign to put patriotism back in schools has been a key part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's agenda since his first one-year term from 2006, when parliament revised a law setting out the goals of education to include nurturing "love of country" and respect for tradition and culture.
That and amending the country's postwar, pacifist constitution have been key goals for Abe and many conservatives in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The most recent flashpoint was sparked this week when top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said schools were free to use the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which also stresses Confucian values such as filial piety, as teaching material.
In the charter, Emperor Meiji exhorted subjects to "offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth". It was rejected after World War Two as having functioned as an incubator for militarism.
The pronouncement coincides with plans for government-approved textbooks that critics say paint a narrowly traditional view of Japanese culture, and a scandal over a nationalist private school with ties to Abe's wife.
Abe has denied that he or his wife, Akie, helped the school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, get a cut-price parcel of government land for the school, but has told parliament he shares Moritomo Gakuen's views on education, which include reciting the Imperial Rescript.
From next year, students at state-run schools will be assessed for ethics courses on their overall performance in 22 areas including "freedom and responsibility" and "love of country and homeland".
Advocates of the reforms deny they are intended to impose uniform values and stress that guidelines call for discussion to develop critical thinking.
"It is in no way a return to prewar-style moral education," Hakubun Shimomura, a former education minister and Abe ally, told Reuters. "It is only natural to love one's country, and to love one's country does not mean denigrating other countries."
Disputes over wartime history have long soured Tokyo's relations with regional neighbors Beijing and Seoul, and textbooks - which are even more heavily controlled in China and South Korea - are a frequent bone of contention.
China took direct aim at recent developments in a commentary in state-run Xinhua news agency this week.
"From relaxing (the) post-war constitution that bans its military from fighting abroad to ambitious overseas military presences, and now from the military to national education, the steps taken by the Abe administration reveal Japanese far rightists' attempt to revive pre-war militarism," it said.
Some domestic voices are also critical.
"Patriotism exists within each individual's thoughts, and it is totally inappropriate to evaluate it," Akira Nagatsuma, an opposition Democratic Party lawmaker, told Reuters.
"The lesson of the pre-war era is that a country where people forgot how to criticize committed a big mistake. We must ensure this does not happen again."
Lawyer Keiko Ota said there was a common thread running through the LDP's draft constitutional changes, the Moritomo Gakuen affair, and the government's classroom interventions.
"The prime minister and those close to him want to implant the notion that the individual should sacrifice for the sake of the nation," she said.
Since Abe's return to office in 2012, other educational changes include directives to textbook publishers to include the government stance on touchy historical topics including territorial rows with China, South Korea and Russia.
Changes in ethics textbooks approved in March are by no means the stuff of militarism.
In one case, a publisher swapped in a picture of a maker of traditional Japanese "wagashi" sweets instead of a bakery in a section on getting to know one's neighborhood, while another replaced a jungle-gym at a park with a shop selling traditional Japanese musical instruments.
But critics say such changes seek to impose an exclusive definition of "Japanese culture" and foster narrow patriotism.
"More than actual content, we know this is part of the bigger picture ... so of course, 'wagashi' fits that picture," said Sophia University professor Sven Saaler.
More jarring was a decision announced last Friday to include "jukendo", a martial art based on bayonet fighting, among sports that can be taught in junior high schools, a step that one local governor tweeted showed a "nostalgia for militarism".
"The idea to include jukendo in middle-school sports activities is a clear indication that the current government is tilting towards more affirmative attitudes regarding Japan's militarist past," Saaler said.
Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Will Waterman