The spotlight has fallen again on textbook screening as people in Okinawa denounce the government’s March instruction that publishers delete descriptions about the role the Imperial army played in ordering mass civilian suicides during the Battle of Okinawa.
Following are questions and answers about how the screening procedure works and controversies over the system:
When and how did the current textbook screening system begin?
In the early 20th century, when Japan was pursuing colonial possessions, the government compiled elementary school textbooks to unify what people were taught. Junior high textbooks were screened by the government. At the time, only elementary school education was compulsory.
In 1947, during the Allied Occupation, the government enacted the School Education Law, which allows elementary, junior high and high schools to use textbooks compiled by nongovernmental publishers.
However, the law stipulates that all textbooks be authorized by the education ministry to maintain academic standards.
How are textbooks screened?
Publishers first submit draft versions of their textbooks to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry for screening by specialists to ensure the books meet government-set standards, such as the scope and accuracy of the content and fairness in descriptions of political or religious issues.
Then the Textbook Authorization Research Council, comprised of some 120 scholars and schoolteachers, checks the results of the screening. The meetings of the council as well as its minutes are not disclosed to the public.
The council points out what it deems are erroneous, unbalanced or inappropriate descriptions based on the standards. The education ministry uses the council’s findings to order publishers to amend texts. While publishers can rebut the council’s views, the textbooks will not be authorized unless they receive council approval.
How often are textbooks screened?
All textbooks are screened every four years, or the amount of time it roughly takes from the start of a textbook’s compilation to its distribution. The timetable for when to screen textbooks for each level of education — elementary, junior high or high school — has been set by the education ministry.
How do schools choose the textbooks that they use?
Local boards of education select textbooks for municipal elementary, junior high and high schools in the districts they oversee. National and private elementary, junior high and high schools can pick their own texts.
Is the screening system politically neutral?
The final screening by the expert panel is supposed to guarantee neutrality. But some observers say their decisions can be influenced by the government, especially regarding views about modern history.
Kazuo Fujimura, a former senior official at the education ministry who was involved in the screening process, argues that the screening system remains separate from government policy because scholars and schoolteachers check the contents of history textbooks based on generally accepted views on history.
On the other hand, Hisao Ishiyama, a high school history textbook author and former high school teacher, says screening by education ministry officials is inevitably influenced by the sitting government of the time and this affects the council’s judgments.
People in Okinawa have been outraged by the screening for high school history textbooks that were authorized by the ministry in March. What happened?
Based on a recommendation from the textbook screening council, the education ministry ordered publishers to remove references to the Imperial Japanese Army’s role in forcing civilians to commit mass suicide, and mass murder-suicide, during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
Past textbooks authorized the inclusion of the references. Critics say the request to delete them reflected the nationalistic views of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet.
The education ministry has said history textbooks should avoid a definitive description about the military’s role because academic research on the issue has drawn various conclusions, and testimony by those who experienced the battle differs.
Okinawans protested, prompting the ministry to drop the March instruction and allow the deleted references to be reinstated. Tens of thousands of people staged a rally in Okinawa on Sept. 29, and some 160 prefectural assembly members and activists visited Tokyo in mid-October to lobby for keeping the original references intact.
Education minister Kisaburo Tokai, under the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, said the ministry may review the screening to reinstate the deletions if the publishers apply.
What other controversies have occurred?
One famous foe of screening was Saburo Ienaga, a noted historian and a high school history textbook author who passed away in 2002. He filed three lawsuits against the government, in 1965, 1967 and 1984.
Ienaga argued that screening textbooks is unconstitutional because it violates freedom of expression and is the same as censorship. He also said that deleting descriptions of Japan’s war crimes is illegal.
The first and the second suits were rejected. But in a 1997 ruling on the third suit, the Supreme Court said it was illegal for the textbook screeners to compel Ienaga to delete a description of the infamous Unit 731, which during World War II waged biological warfare in China and experimented on prisoners.
Another controversy took place in 1982, when screeners watered down descriptions of Japan’s wartime aggression, prompting China and South Korea to decry what they called distortions by the government of historical facts.
The ensuing diplomatic uproar prompted the government to add a clause to the education ministry’s textbook screening guideline that history books should be edited in a way that “takes into consideration” Japan’s relations with its neighbors when describing modern and contemporary historical facts.
A diplomatic hubbub sparked anew in 2001 when a junior high school history textbook compiled by members of the revisionist Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform was authorized by the ministry. The group is widely believed to hold strong nationalistic views on history.
The controversial textbook had a ripple effect on other history texts — some publishers have since diluted their descriptions of the Nanjing Massacre and the wartime military’s sex slaves, known as the “comfort women.”
Do any other countries have similar screening system?
Germany and Norway screen their elementary and secondary school textbooks.
China and South Korea have government-compiled textbooks in addition to those compiled by private companies and screened by the government.
Australia, Finland and Sweden have no textbook screening system and publishers can compile textbooks freely.