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Political protest or textbook harassment?

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In 1979, The New Yorker ran a very long article by Frances FitzGerald about American history textbooks and how they had changed over the years. She said that the framing of history depends on who is writing it and, more importantly, who is supporting that writing. Publishers present history in such a way as to make their product more palatable to a very general audience. As a result certain aspects of history are lost or distorted. During the early years of the Cold War, for instance, America’s motives for past military adventures were invariably justified in contemporary textbooks, whereas after the combative 1960s those motives were questioned.

These distortions were manifested by cultural and economic considerations rather than political ones. The prevailing mood of the country at any given time dictated how history was addressed. The federal government wasn’t involved, at least not directly.

In Japan, the central government is involved in the production of textbooks, since they screen potential publications for use in the country’s schools. Generally speaking, the media assumes that the government’s view of history is a conservative one, especially when it comes to World War II, but it isn’t conservative enough for some people, or even for some media.

On Aug. 8, the Mainichi Shimbun ran an article about Nada Junior High School, whose students often go on to the best universities. For more than a year, the school, located in Kobe, had been receiving postcards objecting to its use of a history textbook, “Tomo ni Manabu Ningen no Rekishi” (“Human History We Learn Together”) published by Manabisha. The messages on the postcards take issue with the book’s handling of the “comfort women” who sexually serviced Japanese soldiers during the war. The textbook said that the Imperial Army was involved in setting up and managing the so-called comfort stations (ianjo), and printed part of then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s 1993 statement admitting that women were forced to work in these military brothels. Manabisha also added a passage saying the Japanese government maintains there is no documentary evidence proving women were forced, but this contradiction is not explained.

In an interview, Nada’s principal told the Mainichi that in Dec. 2015, after his school began using the textbook, they started receiving postcards, some anonymous, some not. The majority of the cards were obviously coordinated because they were so much alike in appearance and content. The senders accused Nada of being “anti-Japanese” and “ultra-leftist” for using the books. The principal was perplexed, because the textbook had been approved by the government.

The Sankei Shimbun later ran article about how the textbooks were a “problem” and named some of the schools that had adopted them. “It was political pressure” to stop using the book the Nada principal told the Mainichi.

The Sankei article, which appeared March 19, 2016, said Manabisha’s was the only junior high school history textbook that mentioned “comfort women,” and identified some of the “more than 30 schools” that were using it, including “elite schools that are difficult to get into.” These schools were either national or private, meaning textbooks were chosen by the schools themselves rather than local government education committees, as is the case with public schools.

The article also pointed out that when Manabisha submitted its first version to the education ministry it was rejected, and then the publisher made some of the passages “softer.” After that, the ministry approved the text.

Equally notable to the newspaper was Manabisha’s treatment of the “Nanking Incident,” in which many historians say tens of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed and raped by Japanese soldiers. In Sankei’s view, Manabisha “kindly” took into consideration the testimony of Chinese people. The publisher also relegated the only mention of the Japanese abducted by North Korea “to a table” rather then discuss the matter fully in the body of the text.

Many of the schools contacted by Sankei declined to comment. One said the comfort women issue had little to do with its decision to adopt the textbook. Nada told the newspaper that since the government approved the textbook, “We don’t need to give our reason for selecting it.” Manabisha denied it had edited the volume “with elite schools in mind.”

NHK went deeper into the story on a recent edition of its news show, “Close-up Gendai.” According to its research, 38 junior high schools use the Manabisha textbook, of which 29 admitted they had received protesting postcards. The majority of the cards were either one of two types. The first were picture postcards, mostly from alumni of the schools targeted. The photos depicted scenes of Chinese civilians welcoming Japanese soldiers during World War II. NHK tracked down the source of the postcards, a man named Masanori Mizuma, who says he has done his own research into Nanking and the military brothels. He said the postcards were not threats. The purpose was to “enlighten” the schools.

The second type of postcard featured uniform printed messages, though the postcards themselves were mailed from all over Japan. NHK contacted some of the senders and found that they had attended local seminars about Japanese history where they wrote down their names and addresses. These people, as well as some politicians and public officials, understood the reason for the postcards and agreed with the message printed on them.

As NHK pointed out, controversy over textbook content is nothing new. What’s different about the Manabisha case is that the protesting parties, including the Sankei Shimbun, are targeting specific schools rather than government organs or publishers. They deny that their mission is to intimidate, but one school official in Nagoya told NHK that he found the postcards “creepy,” and some of the schools that received the cards told the Mainichi that if they continue receiving them then the next time they choose a textbook they’ll be more careful.