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The Supreme Court on August 29 ordered the central government to pay 400,000 yen in damages to 83-year-old historian Saburo Ienaga in the last of his three lawsuits against the Education Ministry, although it ruled that the system of screening school textbooks is constitutional.

The petty bench of the nation’s top court said the government acted illegally by abusing its discretionary power when it ordered Ienaga to scrap from his textbook a reference on live human experiments conducted by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731 in Northern China during World War II.

The top court said that the screening system itself does not violate the freedom of expression, academic freedom or the right to education, all guaranteed under the Constitution, as well as the ban on censorship. Ienaga, a professor emeritus at the now defunct Tokyo University of Education, currently Tsukuba University, had filed three separate suits over the ministry’s screening of his book, which was designed as a high school history text.

The ruling ends the legal battle started in 1965, when Ienaga filed the first of three damages suits over the screening system. His defeats in the first and second suits have been finalized. In 1984, he filed the last suit against the government over the revisions he was forced to make to school texts, including references on Japanese atrocities in China in the 1930s. He was seeking 2 million yen in damages, saying the ministry’s forced revisions in 1980 and 1983 caused him great mental anguish.

In October 1993, the Tokyo High Court awarded him 300,000 yen, saying the ministry unlawfully ordered him to rewrite his accounts, including that of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. But the high court adhered to a Supreme Court ruling in March the same year on Ienaga’s first suit, which dismissed his claim that the screening itself infringes on academic and educational freedom and amounts to censorship. Ienaga appealed the high court ruling, while the government did not.

On July 18, the Supreme Court convened for a rare hearing to allow the historian and the government to present their views. Among the points of contention were descriptions of war in Okinawa and human experiments conducted in China by members of Unit 731. Ienaga’s original text read, “not a few (Okinawan) people were killed by the Japanese military.” The ministry ordered him to insert a section on the mass suicides of civilians in Okinawa, saying that without referring to the case the entire picture of the war would not be clear.

In the ruling, the five-member court unanimously dismissed Ienaga’s claim, saying the government’s order to have the description on the Battle of Okinawa altered was not illegal. Also, the court rejected Ienaga’s appeal on the ministry’s order to scrap the description of “Korean people’s anti-Japan resistance” during the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War. The ministry screeners had demanded that the text be eliminated, saying they did not understand what it referred to.

On the activities of Unit 731, Ienaga’s textbook cited that the army unit engaged in such “brutal acts” as capturing foreigners, including thousands of Chinese, and killing them through live experiments on them. The ministry at the time ordered the description to be eliminated from the text, saying there was not enough scholarly work on the subject and it would be “premature” to include the entry in the textbook. The court ruled in favor of Ienaga by three to two.

The court said that although published works available at that time included nonscholarly ones, the fact that a biological warfare unit called Unit 731 existed and killed a number of Chinese through live experiments during the war “had been established beyond denial.”

At a news conference after the ruling, Ienaga thanked his lawyers and supporters for their longtime support. “Unfortunately, we did not receive the all-out victory that we had hoped for,” Ienaga said with a strained but forceful voice at Kenseikinenkan Hall, which was packed with the press and his supporters. “But the ruling revealed that the textbook screening could do an illegal thing.”

Hiroshi Oyama, one of the lawyers who have represented the historian, expressed disappointment. “Despite the fact that the court held an oral opening, it only increased the amount of the award for damage by 100,000 yen and added only one reference as illegal,” he said.

Noriko Omori, a lawyer who has been involved in the lawsuits for nearly 30 years, said the suits themselves have worked as a deterrent against the government’s abuse of power in screening school textbooks. “The screening has become much more lenient recently, compared to the time when we first started fighting,” Omori said.

Although the decades-old legal battle has ended, Omori said she will continue fighting against the screening system outside the courtroom. “Efforts to fight against textbook screening will become all the more necessary toward the next century, in order for tomorrow’s children to be able to nurture their own thinking,” she said.

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