Censorship by education boards

It surfaced in August that the Matsue City board of education in Shimane Prefecture had severely limited students’ access to the 10-volume manga series “Hadashi no Gen” (“Barefoot Gen”), a best-selling antiwar and antinuclear weapons classic. Although the board eventually withdrew its decision and the decision was not directly related to teachers’ teaching activities in classrooms, boards of education in other areas have intervened in the process of schools’ decision directly related to the content of education in classrooms — the selection of Japanese history textbooks.

Boards of education should refrain from such intervention and respect the autonomy of schools and teachers in the selection of teaching materials unless the materials selected violate laws.

The common element between the “Hadashi no Gen” incident and the history textbook incidents is the perception of Japan’s 20th century wars. In the “Hadashi no Gen” incident, the Matsue board of education in December 2012 told the city’s elementary and junior high schools to remove the manga series from library shelves and to require students to get permission from teachers to read it.

Facing criticism from the public, the board on Aug. 26 withdrew its earlier decision and allowed individual elementary and junior high schools to return the series to their library shelves. Unfortunately the board rescinded the decision only on technical grounds — that the head of the board’s secretariat unilaterally made the original decision without consulting with board members. It failed to express regret over violating children’s right to read books and depriving them of an important chance of learning about the cruelty of war and the horrific nature of a nuclear attack.

The history textbook incidents occurred in Kanagawa, Tokyo and Osaka. The Kanagawa prefectural board of education ordered 28 prefecturally run high schools that had expressed a desire to adopt two editions of Japanese history textbooks compiled by Jikkyo Shuppan Co. for use from fiscal 2014 to not do so.

Boards of education have final say over what textbooks schools can use. But usually boards of education accept decisions made by individual high schools concerning textbooks because high school textbooks are not covered by the law on free-of-charge distribution of school textbooks and because each high school makes a decision based on its own curriculum. As a result of the Kanagawa board’s instruction, the 28 high schools decided to use other textbooks.

The board took issue with the textbooks’ explanation about the law on the national flag and anthem, which went into force in August 1999. It designates the Hinomaru flag as Japan’s national flag and “Kimigayo” as the national anthem. Some citizens regard the flag and the anthem as symbols of Japan’s past militarism and oppose the use of them.

The textbooks said that although the government made it clear during Diet deliberations on the national flag and anthem bill that the law would not coerce people into raising the flag or singing the anthem, “there are moves among some local governments to impose the coercion on public servants.” This refers to the fact that in some areas, teachers and school workers who do not follow school principals’ order to look at the flag and sing the anthem during a school ceremony face harsh disciplinary measures.

The Kanagawa board of education said that it is the duty of teachers and school workers to raise the flag, look at it and sing the anthem at a school ceremony, and that this does not constitute coercion. It also said that the textbooks’ explanation runs counter to the board’s policy.

The board’s justification of its instruction to the 28 high schools is absurd and illogical. The education ministry takes the view that if a school principal orders teachers and school workers to raise the national flag, look at it and sing the national anthem during a school ceremony, such an order is of a coercive nature and therefore the textbooks’ explanation is “not incorrect.” In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that a school principal issuing such an order was constitutional. But next year, the top court said that a board of education should be careful about meting out severe disciplinary measures, such as wage cuts and suspension from work, to teachers and school workers who do not follow such orders.

The Kanagawa board of education must respect the simple fact that the two editions of history textbooks in question passed the education ministry’s screening process. It also should pay attention to the following fact: The original drafts used a rather ambiguous phrase that the real situation is different from the government’s explanation in the Diet that the national flag and anthem bill does not entail coercion of people.

During the screening process, the education ministry pointed out that the phrase is hard to understand and called for a change. In response, the textbook authors inserted the phrase that “there are moves among some local governments to impose coercion on public servants.”

It is absurd for the board of education to think that the 28 high schools wanted to use the history textbooks because of the explanation in question. They preferred the textbooks because they are well organized and thus easy for teachers to use, and are effective tools for teaching Japanese history.

The history textbooks come in two different editions. One deals with single themes in two-page spreads, poses relevant questions and devotes nearly half of its pages to modern history. The other edition places emphasis on Japan’s relations with East Asian countries such as China and Korea. Both editions use a lot of graphics to facilitate students’ understanding of the issues presented.

The Tokyo’s board of education also told high schools that it is inappropriate to use the Jikkyo Shuppan Co. textbooks. As a result no high schools opted to use them. The Osaka prefectural board of education told high schools that decided to use the textbooks to supplement them with auxiliary materials.

In Yokohama, the city board of education in May started recalling a supplementary reader about the city for junior high school students because it stated that after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the armed forces, the police and vigilante groups persecuted and massacred Koreans — two well-known facts.

The moves by these boards of education will blind students to past and present events in Japanese society. This will only produce ignorant citizens who merely obey the will of the state and cannot make autonomous judgment on important issues. Ultimately it will weaken the democratic foundation of Japanese society.