When a public junior high school teacher in Tokyo teaches about Japan’s acts of wartime aggression, some of her students ask why they should feel responsible for what people did 60 years ago.

The teacher, who has taught social studies for more than two decades, believes students should find the answer themselves, and that history textbooks should provide sufficient information to help them think the issue through.

“I think it’s inappropriate for (history textbooks) to give one-sided descriptions for either Japan’s aggression or the damage it suffered” in the war, she said, asking that her name not be used. “It’s important to look at a historical event from various viewpoints.”

Textbooks play an important role in history education, which helps build a foundation for students to view their own history as well as those of other countries.

But while six decades have passed since the end of World War II, creating a common view of Japan’s wartime actions among Japanese and reflecting it in textbooks remains an elusive task.

How to describe modern history has become especially controversial since the compilation in 2001 of a revisionist junior high school history textbook by a group of scholars called the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform.

The group argues that other history texts are self-tormenting when describing Japan’s wartime acts. Some critics, however, say the society’s own textbook glosses over wartime crimes by giving a distorted version of history.

“History textbooks have been mirrors that reflect the mood of (Japanese) society” at the time, said Kazuo Fujimura, a former senior official at the Education Ministry, now the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

The current controversy over the group’s text indicates that “more people now think teaching wartime aggression may not help nurture patriotism” among youth, observed Fujimura, executive director of the Japan Textbook Research Center, which was established in 1976 by textbook publishers.

In fact, descriptions of Japan’s wartime acts in history textbooks have changed over the past 60 years, but never in one set direction.

After the war, the Allied Occupation, which considered prewar history education as a reason behind Japan’s militarism and extreme nationalism, banned schools from teaching history for about a year.

In 1946, the government compiled new textbooks under the censorship of the U.S.-led Allied forces, and private publishers started printing textbooks two years later. Their coverage of modern Japanese history was skimpy but gave negative tinges to Japan’s wartime acts by, for instance, using the word “invasion” to describe Japan’s military thrust into China from 1931.

After Japan regained its independence with the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, the descriptions changed in line with the government’s greater control over textbook content.

In 1958, the government reinforced its textbook screening system — first introduced in 1947 — by having education ministry officials examine whether textbooks met government-set academic guidelines.

“Some (conservative) politicians in those days thought that descriptions of the Pacific War in history textbooks were self-punishing and that such textbooks were inappropriate for nurturing patriotism among students,” Fujimura said. “Because many authors of the modern history portion of textbooks those days were from the left wing, the descriptions needed to be neutralized through the screening system.”

This resulted in modifying some of the negative descriptions of Japan’s acts, such as using softer wording like “advance” to describe the Japanese foray into China, according to experts.

The screening system saw a turning point in 1970, when the Tokyo District Court ruled in favor of Saburo Ienaga, a historian and textbook author, and said the system was illegal and constituted censorship. The ruling was supported by the Tokyo High Court in 1975 but was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

“Since the rulings, descriptions of aggression in history textbooks gradually increased,” said Hisao Ishiyama, chairman of the History Educationalist Conference of Japan, formed in 1949 by history teachers. “Ienaga’s legal battle helped get the public to keep a watchful eye on the screening process.”

But strong government control over history textbooks only came to an end in the 1980s, when their content became the focus of a major diplomatic dispute.

In 1982, some Japanese media reported that the screening system held back some descriptions of Japan’s military aggression, prompting China and South Korea to blast the government for distorting historical facts.

As a result, the government added a clause to the education ministry’s guideline for screening textbooks that history books should be edited in a way that “takes into consideration” Japan’s relations with neighboring countries.

Some experts say this move was based on the government’s belief that Japan, as a major economic power, needed to forge better relations with other Asian countries.

In fact, the number of changes the ministry issues per history textbook has been reduced to about 10 percent that of its peak in the 1980s, according to one textbook publisher.

More descriptions of aggression have since been included. For example, all seven history textbooks authorized in 1996 for junior high schools mentioned “comfort women” — mostly Asian women who were forced into sexual slavery at frontline brothels for the Imperial Japanese Army. The government admitted the existence of such women in 1993.

The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform was formed in 1997 by scholars and other intellectuals amid this trend.

At the same time, the emergence of its textbook had a ripple effect on other history textbooks — some publishers have since altered their descriptions of the Nanjing Massacre and comfort women.

The textbook publisher said it has received an increasing number of requests regarding history textbook descriptions from various groups of people, including leftist and rightist activists, since the society was formed.

“Many people may still think that the government restricts (the content of textbooks) through its screening system,” the publisher’s social studies textbook editor said. “But criticism and requests from outside parties have a larger influence. Compiling history textbooks is becoming a more difficult task.”

Tsunemi Koyama, a professor of education history at Otsuki City College in Yamanashi Prefecture, said the society’s textbook has helped reduce what he called excessive descriptions of wartime aggression.

“I think junior high school students need to learn a positive view of history so that they can nurture a positive self-identity,” he said. “They can learn how to view history critically at the high school level.”

But now every time the revisionist history textbook wins government approval for use in junior high schools, the controversy over content draws public attention to the issue and poses to Japanese the question of how to view their wartime history.

The ongoing controversy is adversely affecting Japan’s relations with other Asian countries.

Wang Zhixin, an education professor at Miyazaki Municipal University, said the textbook issue indicates that some Japanese do not want to face up to what the country did before and during the war.

“I’d thought the history textbook issue was over and done with” in 1996, when all seven history textbooks wrote about the comfort women, he said. “Japan needs to take a critical view of its modern history. Without doing so, I cannot allay my fear that Japan may repeat the same history (of aggression).”

Ishiyama of the history educators’ group said he believes the root of the problem lies in the fact that many Japanese have not learned enough facts about the war or thought deeply about history.

The former high school history teacher noted that many memories of the war have faded and that Japan, which has just gone through a protracted economic slump, is now trying to boost its international presence by actively sending the Self-Defense Forces overseas.

“Young people don’t have to feel responsible for (the country’s) past aggression, but they should learn historical facts,” he said. “Without this, we can’t learn anything from the past to utilize as lessons for the future.”

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