Cartoon duo leads the way in a version of history that’s no joke


The phrase “textbook row” has become a regular sighting in Japanese newspapers of late, as newly authorized history books for schools are accused, both at home and abroad, of “glossing over” the bloodier aspects of this country’s warmongering, Imperialist past.

Few outside the nation’s classrooms ever get to see the books that are causing all the fuss, and for those who are not experts in the Japanese language, reading it for themselves is a near impossibility. So what is behind the brouhaha surrounding the most controversial of the eight junior high school texts awarded education ministry approval in April in a four-yearly screening process?

Back in 1997, many in Japan sensed a looming clash when a group came together calling itself the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform. In its statement of purpose it declared, “because of the way in which Japanese history has been taught since World War II, our citizens have been deprived of the opportunity to learn about their culture and traditions, and no longer take pride in being Japanese.”

It was a call for radical change: Japanese remembering the war needed to abandon their “masochistic” tendency of depicting themselves as “criminals on whose shoulders fate had placed the burden of atoning for their sins for generations to come.”

The antidote, edited by the Tokyo-based history society, was a book titled “Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho (New History Textbook)” that was published by Fuso Publishing Inc. and passed goverment screening in 2001. The following year it went into use in junior high schools — along with another controversial text from the same history group, titled “Atarashii Komin Kyokasho (New Civics Textbook).”

At first glance, “New History Textbook” doesn’t intimidate — packed as it is with full-color photographs and a cartoon boy-and-girl duo cheerfully serving as study buddies. The cover of the 234-page bookstore edition features an illustration of the Japan archipelago in comforting earth tones.

Yet venture past the sections on Prince Shotoku and urban and agrarian life in medieval times, and you begin to see what all the fuss is about.

For example, you will search in vain for robust treatment of the Nanking Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanking) — the Japanese military rampage in the capital of Nationalist China in December 1937 and January 1938 that history scholars worldwide almost unanimously agree was Japan’s worst wartime atrocity. Although precise figures will never be known, estimates of the number of Chinese killed in Nanking range from several tens of thousands to more than 100,000.

You wouldn’t know that from reading “New History Textbook.” There, those events are summed up in a tiny panel on page 199 in the bookstore edition that measures not quite 4 cm deep and just over 3 cm across.

The panel can be translated as: “At the time, Japanese forces caused a large number of casualties among Chinese soldiers and civilians. (This is called the Nanking Incident.) Because doubts have been raised over historical documents pertaining to the number of victims, etc., there are various viewpoints and controversy continues to this day.”


There is no range of civilian death-toll estimates. Not even a reference to (Japanese-only) pages on the society’s own Web site that claim to debunk photographic and other evidence of what the group sees fit to call a mere “incident.” (See www.tsukurukai.com/07_fumi/text_fumi/fumi49_text02.html)

As for the euphemistically termed “comfort women” — sex slaves in official Japanese military wartime brothels — coverage in the textbook is even more perfunctory. So perfunctory, in fact, that they are not mentioned in this version of history at all, even though well-sourced estimates of their numbers range from 80,000 to 200,000.

The textbook reform society, however, doubts that there ever were any comfort women. A page on its Web site, titled “High-School History Texts Yet Worse Than at Junior High,” claims that “no material evidence has been found showing Japanese military or police authorities took women by force. The whole issue of ‘comfort women’ amounts to nothing more than some unfounded testimonies.”

While it rushes through the topic of Japan as colonizer, “New History Textbook” spares no breath in describing how, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, the constitutional monarchy of a Japan that had recently emerged from feudalism, itself faced the threat of being colonized.

“The Western powers, whose territory occupied 35 percent of the Earth’s land mass in 1800, used their tremendous military strength to colonize other regions,” reads a section on page 148 titled, “The meaning of the Meiji Restoration.”

“By 1914, when World War I began,” it continues, “that figure had risen to 84 percent. The Meiji Restoration had been accomplished by 1914; if it had not, Japan would most likely have been taken over by one or another of the world powers.”

Students, are you paying attention?

Not that the text totally avoids criticizing Japan. Page 206 of “New History Textbook” — as translated by the history society — acknowledges that “the war inflicted a huge amount of devastation and suffering on the peoples living in battlegrounds across Asia. The casualties (both military and civilian) attributable to Japanese invasions were particularly high in China.”

“When the public comes to realize that we have written the book in a manner both faithful to fact and fair, they will come to acknowledge our efforts,” said Eiichi Manabe, editor in charge of textbooks at Fuso Publishing, whose main shareholders include Fuji Television Network, Inc., The Sankei Shimbun newspaper and the Nippon Broadcasting System, Inc.

Asked to explain why, in their Japanese text, the writers described the scale of human suffering as tasu no giseisha ga deta (there were a great number of victims), without any numerical estimate, Manabe replied: “Whether we phrase it ‘there were a great number of victims’ and publish a figure or don’t publish one, either way it is written clearly and accurately. We haven’t hidden any truth.” (An official at the history society declined to comment for this article.)

Like it or not, “New History Textbook” has made history a hot topic in a country not known for passionate discussions about the past.

For his part, respected historian Haruki Wada, a professor emeritus of Tokyo University, flatly rejects the history society’s stance on comfort women.

“In the case of Korea, the Japanese military gathered common women from contractors who had recruited them, then loaded them onto their military vessels and brought them south. The military managed the operations and handled the distribution,” said Wada, adding that women from other parts of Asia suffered similar fates.

Earlier this month, nearly 1,000 protesters turned out when the board of education in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward became the third municipality in Japan to adopt the textbook, after Otawara in Tochigi Prefecture and the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education (whose school jurisdiction doesn’t extend to localities).

With more than 500 of those protesters opposing the book, and the others supporting it, both sides bellowed their opinions at each other.

On an NHK political discussion forum broadcast a few days later, one 77-year-old man barked out, “The old textbooks were nothing but socialism in disguise!

Appeal for calm

“I support a textbook that teaches us Japanese to love our ancestors and to love our country!”

To this, a 57-year-old high-school history teacher retorted: “I can’t believe that with our education standards, Fuso Publishing’s book made it through screening!”

As if to appeal for calm, Takakazu Kuriyama, a former ambassador to the United States, said that Japan could — and should — take pride in its political achievements in the early part of the 20th century. But he added that there was nothing wrong with apologizing for mistakes that occurred later on.

“Every country has a dark page it doesn’t want to see,” he said. “It is very important that we study the environment in which such things came to pass.”

Despite all this contention, and the massive negative coverage of Japan the “textbook row” generates in countries like China and both the Koreas, as of last year the eight public junior high schools and eight private junior high schools using the 2001 version of the “New History Textbook” represented a paltry 0.097 percent of the junior high school population. That’s almost one youngster in every 1,000 who could be exposed to it.

Now there’s a fact.