The latest best seller, oddly enough, is a junior high school history textbook. After going on sale on June 1, “Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho” has been at or near the top of the best-seller list and the related social studies text “Atarashii Komin Kyokasho” in the top 10. Already 500,000 copies of the history text are in print and 150,000 of the social studies text.

Actually these two textbooks, the first efforts of the Tsukuru Kai (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai; Association To Write New History Textbooks), have been at the center of controversy since their approval for use in schools by the government in April.

By order of the Minister of Education, 137 places were corrected in the history text, but critics contend it still presents a nationalistic and militaristic view of Japanese history, and South Korea and China have complained about its glossing over of wartime atrocities.

According to Shukan Asahi (June 22), textbook publishers are upset by Fusosha’s unusual step of publishing editions for the general public, since they are bound by restrictions on the distribution and advertising of textbooks during the period of book selection by local school boards this month and next.

A top executive of Fusosha defends its action by saying the text has been the victim of selective quotes by critics in the media so it wanted to make it available to be judged in its totality.

An anonymous employee says few at Fusosha were interested in embarking on school textbooks but the decision was made at the top.

The firm mainly publishes women’s magazines and entertainment books but is part of the Fuji Sankei group, and the Sankei Shimbun is a major backer of the textbook movement.

Incidentally, Fusosha is also the publisher of the big best seller this year, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, which has sold more than 3 million copies since November.

The revisionist movement calling for a more “positive” history to foster pride in Japan has been active for a number of years, with “Sensoron” by manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi a best seller in 1998 and “Kokumin no Rekishi” by Kanji Nishio popular last year.

The Tsukuru Kai was formally established in Japan in January 1997 and, according to Yoshifumi Tawara in Sekai (June) and Tsukuru (June), now has more than 10,000 members, branches in each prefecture, and a yearly income of more than 420 million yen. (A chart of overlapping members of the Tsukuru Kai and other rightist groups can be found in Sekai).

Larger bookstores now display various books attacking the revisionist textbooks such as “Konna Kyokasho Kodomo ni Watasemasu ka” or “Koko Made Hidoi!”

Less doctrinaire is Iwanami’s “Rekishi Kyokasho, Nani ga Mondai ka — Tettei Kensho Q&A.” Unfortunately this costs 1,600 yen, vs. 980 yen for the textbook, and is only in large bookstores (Iwanami has a policy of no returns), while the textbook seems to be stocked even in the smallest neighborhood store.

An interesting essay by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe can be found in the Iwanami volume as well as in the June issue of Sekai.

He was surprised at the emotional writing style in the history text, and somewhat nostalgic as well, as it was just like the textbook he studied from before the war.

Oe feels the sense of mission of the writers leads to an unfair and one-sided selection of material to fit their view of history. After careful reading he thinks their mission is to foster young Japanese who are autonomous and confident as Japanese and can act effectively on the world stage.

He can agree with that goal but disagrees about what it means concretely.

In particular, Oe fails to see why studying war crimes should mean a loss of confidence and pride. Isn’t a recognition of past mistakes and the conscious determination not to repeat them a more natural source of confidence and pride?

Self-confidence is not the power to impose one’s will on others but to control the self and flexibly resist outside pressures. Now more than ever is the time to maintain an open mentality to the world and not to turn away from Asia.

Other critics, such as Hisashi Yamanaka and Shizue Osa in Sekai (June) and Makoto Iokibe in Ronza (July), point out the textbook’s victim mentality, in which Japan in the prewar period was the victim of the Chinese civil war or Western imperialism and had to fight in self-defense.

They see this in a sense as the flip side of the postwar pacifism which advocated peace based on how Japan suffered in the firebombing of Tokyo or atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

They agree there was an unfortunate tendency in postwar history to reject all of prewar history as mistaken and bad. They admit there is a certain freshness in the new text’s many illustrations, columns and emotional style loaded with adjectives and value judgments, but wonder if we really want a junior high textbook to be interesting in this way.

After such intellectual commentary it was refreshing to find a conversation among junior high teachers revealing the actual situation in the classroom in Sekai (June). The four, three men and one woman, teach in public schools in Tokyo, Chiba and Saitama.

In general they don’t deal much with modern Japanese history because they often run out of time in the school year and there are relatively few questions in that area on the high school entrance exams.

They have noted a change in their students in recent years. They tend to have a shorter attention span for complicated topics. Although exposed to a lot of information, they have lost interest in current events. Fewer of them watch the news and talk about it with their parents.

A teacher in his 50s says that when he talked about the Northern Territories problem 20 years ago his students thought it should be solved through talks with the Soviet Union. Now, however, many say the Self-Defense Forces should be sent to teach Russia a lesson.

One teacher has his students ask older people about their war experiences as part of their summer homework. Twenty years ago they only talked about the bad things that happened to them, but from six or seven years ago grandfathers are talking to grandchildren about what they did to others in the war.

They agree that there is low interest in the textbook question among the teachers at their schools as they have little voice in choosing them. In addition, the terms of the media debate are too unrelated to the actual problems in education to be of much immediacy to teachers.

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