Citizenship and Civic Education
Common Problems, Common Solutions
It is a tremendous pleasure to be here today as a guest of Japan, my
country’s closest ally. And it is an even greater honor to have been invited
to speak to you about civic education. After all, civic education is the foun-
dation upon which democracy is built—and Japan and the United States are
the leading advanced industrial democracies in the world.
Before starting, however, I would like to beg your forgiveness in ad-
vance. This is the American Center, so I am sure that you are already famili-
ar with Americans. We are, as you know, an undiplomatic people, prone to
saying what we think, to giving the impression that we know it all, and to
giving insult—without even knowing it! I am an American, and I will there-
fore surely be undiplomatic, surely sound as if I know it all, and surely give
insult. Please forgive me—I’m just an American!
But having said as much, I will also not apologize for what I am
going to say today. I do understand that my subject is sensitive, and some of
you may think that I am trespassing. My subject is just as sensitive at home,
and many Americans think I am trespassing when I speak about it there. But
whether you agree with me or not, I believe strongly that my subject is im-
portant and that as citizens of the two leading democracies in the world, we
must talk about it.
Today, I want to pose and to explore two dangerous questions:
What is the meaning of citizenship in advanced, liberal democracies at
the end of the 20th century? And
How do we teach citizenship to the next generation?
No, that sounds too philosophical—and I’m no philosopher. I’m in-
terested in action. So, let me pose my questions more bluntly:
What do real citizens actually do? And
How do we teach our children to do what real citizens do in order to
keep our democracies, Japan and America, healthy and growing?
Japan and the US: Contrasting Cultures
“Ah,” you might be thinking, “this will be a short speech! We have
nothing in common and so he has nothing to tell us!”
And at one level, you are surely correct, for a lot does separate.
Consider Japan: The very question of the meaning of citizenship seems sil-
ly. Here you are:
Sharing a common origin in shared, divine ancestors;
Sharing racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural homogeneity;
Sharing an extraordinarily strong sense of common identity—the often
expressed sense of “belonging to a single family.”
No one, in other words, ever has to ask the question: What does it
mean to be Japanese?
By the same token, day-to-day life here in Japan—traffic aside—
follows an orderly course. Measured by the simple indicators used to gauge
the quality of life, Japan is almost too good to be true:
Your country is clean.
Your country is safe.
Your schools work.
You are civil to each other, even at rush hour on the subway.
By contrast, consider the US: To many of my Japanese students and friends,
the United States may be a geographical expression, but is not a nation-
state. It is a strange melange—if you wish to borrow a nice French word—
or just a mongrel if you are less kind.
Do Americans share a common origin? No.
Do Americans share a common race? No.
Do Americans share a common ethnicity? No.
Do Americans share a common language? No.
Do Americans share a common identity? No.
In fact, this last question, the identity question—Who is an Ameri-
can? What does it mean to be an American?—has historically been the
question Americans have struggled with. To exaggerate only slightly, you
could even say that all of American history has been a violent argument
about this question. And by violent, I do not just mean people shouting at
each other. I mean loyalists and patriots killing each other during the War of
Independence; I mean Northerners and Southerners killing each other dur-
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ing the Civil War; I mean supporters of the Vietnam War and protesters
against the Vietnam War killing each other.
I am of the Vietnam generation, so perhaps you will forgive me a
Vietnam example. In the 60s, there was a popular bumper sticker that you
often saw plastered on the bumpers of the cars of supporters of the war:
“America: Love It Or Leave It.”
I always liked that bumper sticker—the overwhelming and unwitting
ambiguity of it. “America: Love It Or Leave It.” But, of course, “it” is an
indefinite pronoun. “It” has meaning only when it refers to something else.
So what is the “America,” the “it” that we were supposed to love or leave?
That was—and remains—the big question!
Consider, too, day-to-day life in America. Crime, racial tensions, and
all that. Or consider the simple size and diversity of the place.
Up tight, puritanical Boston and glitzy, low-life Las Vegas;
Vertical New York and sprawling Los Angeles;
Laconic, Scandinavian Minneapolis and jazz hot Creole New Orleans.
What is the “real” America? Who is a “real” American? You under-
stand why these questions have haunted us.
And by now you have surely come to the conclusion that no two
countries could be as different as Japan and the United States.
We are told it over and over and over again. By reporters. By academ-
ics. By politicians.
But I say that they are wrong, profoundly wrong, dangerously wrong
when it comes to the issue that concerns me: How do we keep vital, evolv-
ing democracy alive in our countries so that we continue to enjoy the histor-
ically unprecedented wealth and well being we have experienced since
Japan and the US: Common Problems
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And here—different as we may be in other ways—we confront exact-
ly the same problem: a deep and growing alienation from the public arena.
Now, of course, some of this is surely the result of citizens’ distaste for cor-
rupt politicians and economic woes. But I would argue that the problem is
much bigger, and much more pervasive, and much more difficult to solve.
The problem we face is that we—Japan and the United States—that
we have gone from being countries of citizens to countries of salarymen.
Stop, for a moment, and think. When I say “salaryman” what image
comes to mind? What sort of individual comes to mind? What is his—or
Skip the identical gray or blue suit, trench coat, and brief case. Skip
the rolled up newspaper—it makes no difference whether it is Asahi Shim-
bum or the New York Times.
What defines the salaryman?
First, he or she is smart, well educated, and hard working. He or she
is an individual unit of the immense investment that we—Japan and the
United States—have made in human capital. And it is our wealth of human
capital, after all, that has made us the richest countries the world has ever
But second, the salaryman is caught up in a private dream. The sala-
ryman thinks only of himself or herself. The salaryman gets up in the morn-
ing, goes to work, works hard at his or her career—for the company, yes,
but at bottom for his or her career—and for the private benefits career suc-
cess brings—a nicer car, a bigger apartment, a bigger TV, and maybe, just
maybe, a golf club membership.
Now understand me, I recognize and applaud the salaryman’s essen-
tial contribution. Without his or her skills and hard work, we would be no-
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But the salaryman’s basic attitude—his or her self-absorption—is al-
so a betrayal of the civic ideal upon which both of our countries were built.
Oh, sure, we all like our outsiders—our Yojimbo’s and John Waynes. But at
bottom, both Japan and the United States were built on a powerful sense of
personal responsibility for the community at large.
In the traditional New England or Japanese village, each individual
contributed to the maintenance of the civic infrastructure—the close knit in-
terpersonal relationships and local organizations—churches and temples,
burial societies, and so on—that constituted the community and so made it
possible for each individual to lead his or her private life. Each individual
personally bore a share of the responsibility for the success of the collective,
without which no one could succeed individually.
It is this sense of personal responsibility for the community the sala-
ryman has lost. In its place, the salaryman has substituted “them” as in:
“They are responsible. They will take care of it. It’s not my problem—they
should do something about it.”
Now, as a social scientist, I can explain this phenomenon by referring,
for example, to huge increases in scale—how could anyone consider Tokyo
Analyst to Advocate
But I am not here today as a social scientist, as a mere analyst. I am
here today as an activist, as an advocate for change, because I do not think
that we will thrive in the 21st century as countries of salarymen.
So, what is this “citizenship” I keep talking about?
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Where do salarymen come from?
But where does such citizens come from?
Well, they have to be made, of course.
They have to be educated.
Just as we must educate our children
to give them the knowledge they will need to be engineers or doctors
to give them the math skills and computer skills they will need to flou-
rish in the 21st century, and
to give them the work ethic, the essential attitude to make them good
we must educate our children
to give them the knowledge
and the skills
and the attitude
to be good citizens.
The Possible Dream
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