The selection period for textbooks to be used starting in April in elementary and junior high schools across Japan draws to a close today, but the past months saw the selection procedure draw fire along with some of the texts on view.

The Chofu board of education in western Tokyo debates the selection of textbooks for junior high schools.

Much debate centered on whether to use a contentious history textbook written by nationalist historians that critics, including China and South Korea, slammed as warping history and glossing over Japan’s wartime atrocities.

The textbook, compiled by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and published by Fuso Publishing Inc., did not fare well in the selection process. While some private schools said they would use it, most public institutions, other than six schools for disabled children in Tokyo and Ehime Prefecture, appear to have chosen alternate texts.

While the textbook made headlines with its contents and perceived omissions, recent guidelines issued by the education ministry and local governments have also sparked controversy.

The new guidelines give priority in the textbook selection process to local boards of education — whose members are chosen by heads of municipal governments — rather than teachers, as had traditionally been the case.

In Tokyo, up until last year, municipal education boards took teachers’ opinions into account when deciding which textbooks to use. In some municipalities, each school recommended one textbook for each subject to the board, while in others, a research panel made up of teachers whittled down the selections to a few textbooks, from which the board made its selections.

But things changed in February. In a statement to municipal boards, metropolitan education office head Yokichi Yokoyama advised, “(Education boards) should decide for themselves on textbooks.” The recommendation effectively tells boards not to adopt textbooks this year based solely on recommendations by schools or teachers.

Changes to the textbook selection system took place across Japan, coinciding with lobbying by supporters of the controversial text.

The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform has claimed that history textbooks have long been chosen by “ideologically biased” teachers, making it impossible for textbooks with different views to ever be approved for classroom use. The society was apparently alluding to past conflicts between the Japan Teachers’ Union, regarded as left-leaning, and some of the more conservative elements within bureaucratic and political circles.

“We have made efforts to inform as many people as possible about facts regarding history textbooks, and appealed for texts to be selected fairly and properly,” said Akinori Takamori, the society’s secretary general.

The group’s supporters filed petitions with local assemblies nationwide, urging education boards to make their own decisions. The board-based selection procedure has since been adopted by 33 prefectural assemblies, according to the nongovernmental organization Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21.

Heads of local governments appoint five members to the education board, which selects one textbook for each subject from several textbooks screened and approved by the education ministry.

During Diet deliberations last August, then Education Minister Tadamori Oshima supported the idea of education boards having more involvement.

“I think it is natural that textbooks be chosen based on the decision of education boards,” Oshima said in response to a question from then lawmaker Takao Koyama, who criticized the selection process based on recommendations by teachers or schools. “Under no circumstances should (the selection) be done based on the opinions of (teachers’) unions.”

Since this exchange, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has repeatedly “guided” local education boards, saying it is the boards’ responsibility to decide which textbooks are selected.

This is because in the past, ministry officials said, board members would leave the decision to teachers and not play an active role in selection.

But the move has drawn criticism from teachers, who maintain they have been shut out of the selection process, which in turn has been left in the hands of education board members who are not education professionals and only serve in their positions part-time.

For example, under the ministry-proposed process, education board members must choose from about 450 textbooks compiled for junior high school use. It is virtually impossible, said Koichi Takizawa of the Tokyo Teachers and Staff Union, for all the books to be read before choosing those best suited for students.

“We teachers would select textbooks with individual students in mind, like ‘This text may be too difficult for that child,’ ” Takizawa said. “We are the ones who use the books with the children, that’s why we can say which ones are good for them.”

However, education ministry officials stress that discussions by the education boards are based on textbook reports compiled by teachers, thereby allowing the incorporation of their ideas.

Many teachers insist it has become difficult to have their ideas incorporated into the new system.

During a meeting earlier this month of the Chofu municipal board of education, a committee member tasked with studying the textbooks on offer gave a report regarding the characteristics of each of the textbooks.

However, the committee member, a principal at one of the city’s junior high schools, gave synopses that largely consisted of data and simple information. When asked by board members about the opinions of teachers on the committee, he refrained from commenting. Such a stance, many say, is the result of the ministerial guidance.

On the other hand, supporters of the new procedure say the traditional method gave teachers too much sway. Katsuaki Maezawa, chairman of the National Teachers Federation of Japan, a group of teachers known for its rightist stance, said on the body’s Web site that he is pleased that the traditional, “biased” textbook selection system has been called into question.

But Yoshifumi Tawara, secretary general of the NGO Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21, said the new system does not suit the basic principles of education.

Citing the Advisory Opinion on Status of Teachers released by the International Labor Organization and UNESCO in 1966, which says teachers are endowed with the right to choose textbooks, Tawara called for the system to be changed so teachers can be directly involved in adopting textbooks.

“I don’t deny that the education board should play a role to some extent, but teachers’ opinions should be respected,” he said.

As for procedural transparency, Tawara said the selection process should be more open to the public, enabling teachers and parents to view the process. In Tokyo, there are 54 bodies that select textbooks, but only about half of them allow the public to view proceedings, he said.

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