A group of historians from Japan, China and South Korea has been seeking a common stance on the region’s history in the wake of controversy over recently approved Japanese history textbooks that some say justify Japan’s wartime aggression.

While the historians are aware of the difficulty of interpreting history in a manner that satisfies all sides, they claim they are taking a cool approach to the problem and are distancing themselves from political considerations.

The Society for East Asian History, a Tokyo-based group of academics mainly from Japan, China and South Korea, has been working since 1996 toward publishing a transnational supplementary history text.

The Japanese-language book is scheduled to be published by a leading Tokyo publisher as early as next year.

About a dozen historians held the group’s 42nd regular meeting on a recent Saturday in a basement room of the publishing house’s head office.

The historians, most of whom teach at Japanese universities, were carefully reading a draft by a Korean scholar on Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century.

The Japanese-language text describes how Japan annexed and ruled Korea, as well as its treatment of Koreans. It covers in detail a series of massive independence movements by Korean citizens that started on March 1, 1919.

Since the book is targeted at high school or college students, descriptions are detailed and not overly simplistic, members said.

The day’s discussion began with Masao Kunihiro, a former Upper House member of the Social Democratic Party and former visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh, questioning the script.

“I wonder why this script does not mention the fact that there was a secret deal between (then U.S. Secretary of War William Howard) Taft and (then Japanese) Prime Minister (Taro) Katsura on governing the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “That was the beginning of the Japan-U.S. conspiracy over Korea.”

Yorihisa Namiki, a Tokyo University professor charged with the section on the late 19th century, agreed, saying it is important to place the incident in context.

Kunihiro said the massacre of Korean residents in Japan after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake should also be mentioned.

The discussion also covered terminology. Japanese members objected to some terms that exclusively reflect South Korean views, such as the use of the South Korean name for the Korean Peninsula. The term is not used in Japan or North Korea.

On the other hand, a Chinese historian said the author carelessly employs the word Manchuria, which Japanese use to describe northeastern China.

One member said editors should standardize these terms to “objective” ones throughout the book and other participants agreed. The author was not present at the day’s meeting.

The project was launched by Kunihiro and Kunitaro Takeda, also a former Upper House member. The historians in the group now number above 30 from the three countries as well as from Vietnam and Taiwan, said Ippyo Sugawara, who administers the group’s activity.

Kunihiro said he was inspired by the 1992 book “History of Europe,” cowritten by educators from 12 nations. He said he was impressed by the close friendships fostered between young French and Germans after World War II and thought it would be nice if Japanese and Koreans could develop similar ties.

A common interpretation of history is indispensable before countries can establish solid ties, he added.

He said the project gained momentum in response to a group of Japanese nationalist intellectuals that succeeded in having their own history textbook authorized by the education ministry earlier this year.

South Korea and China have demanded Tokyo revise the textbook, which is published by Fusosha Co.

The supplementary reader will cover East Asian history from ancient times to the present. Kunihiro said the region shares Chinese ideographs, Confucianism, Mahayanist Buddhism, rice cultivation and the system of centralized autocracy that originated in China and prevailed in Japan from the late seventh to the late 10th century.

“We want readers to feel that we have common denominators and we are close to each other,” said Kunihiro, who served in the 1970s as a diplomatic adviser to then Prime Minister Takeo Miki.

Kunihiro said one problem with the project is that East Asian history tends to be China-centered and that parochial Korean scholars may become frustrated.

Sugawara said the first meetings were a sounding-out period and participants let down their guards in later sessions.

But the differences in historians’ interpretations of events are not as wide as those between politicians, members said. For example, there is no dispute among members that Japanese soldiers, “in essence,” committed the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, said Reinosuke Fujiie, the book’s editor in chief and a professor emeritus at Tokai University.

While China claims more than 300,000 people were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers, many Japanese historians claim the actual figure is much smaller. Some even insist there were no mass executions, and that the victims were Chinese guerrillas without uniforms killed in battles with Japanese soldiers.

Even Chinese historians in the group treat their government’s assertion with skepticism, the members said, while no member believes the incident was a complete fabrication.

“It will be very difficult to narrow down to a definite figure, although we would like to do our best,” said Fujiie, adding that the authors plan to introduce different arguments on controversial issues.

During the latest meeting, members also discussed the contentious Japanese textbook and the revision demands made by Seoul.

A Korean scholar said some Korean academics described the demand as “political” and “nonsense.” A Chinese researcher also said China’s reaction against the textbook is political, adding that Chinese historians have yet to come up with concrete criticisms of the text.

Sugawara said citizens’ awareness is more advanced and that politics always stands in the way of reconciliation attempts between the people of East Asia.

The planned history book will not go through the education ministry’s screening process, members said, because there is no East Asian history in the school curriculum.

But Fujiie said he hopes the project will be a model if East Asian countries use a common textbook in the future.

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