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History, the orphan child of Japanese education, will acquire new status next year. “Modern global history” is to be made a compulsory subject in senior high schools.

Shukan Toyo Keizai magazine devotes the better part of its Nov. 20 issue to the implications. The measure “removes the barrier between Japanese history and world history,” says education ministry official Atsushi Fujino.

Postwar Japan has been future-oriented to a degree that fails to do justice to its recent past, neighboring countries who bore the brunt of Japan’s wartime militarism have charged over the years. History as a school subject has languished accordingly — taught mechanically, learned by rote, forgotten after the exam. That may change.

Toyo Keizai sketches the program this way: Its overall objective is to give children a broad grasp of how the world, and Japan within it, have fared over the past two and a half centuries. Three broad themes predominate: 18th- to 19th-century industrialization “and us”; 19th- to 20th-century mass society “and us”; 20th- to 21st-century globalization “and us” — “and us” a reminder that we are part of the evolution, its heirs and its transmitters.

The modern age was born of an expansion of consciousness and enterprise that stirred 16th-century Europe. The discovery of a “new world” spurred imperialism — proto-globalism. Japan, though Christopher Columbus’ intended destination when he sailed westward to what turned out to be the Americas, figured little in this. It was a global backwater soon to become a “closed country,” self-isolating against the plague of foreign incursion.

Europe throbbed and surged. Industry burgeoned, transforming work, consumption, aspirations, living conditions, everything — it transformed the human species. Japan, at peace after centuries of civil war, held aloof, cultivating the Confucian virtues. When American Black Ships came steaming into Edo (now Tokyo) Bay in 1853, there was no resisting. Japan saw that. Grudgingly at first, then eagerly, it entered modern history.

The education ministry’s packaging has its critics. Is it perhaps a little too neat? Tokyo University historian Hiroshi Mitani thinks it is. It adopts the conventional view that industrialization preceded globalization, but in Japan’s case, he tells Toyo Keizai, it was the reverse. The Black Ships from across the Pacific bore guns but also a concept, then unnamed — globalism. Japan’s accession to American demands was step one in its own globalization. Industrialization was its consequence, not its cause.

Such wrinkles are inevitable. History resists packaging but cannot be taught unpackaged. Toyo Keizai generally approves of the ministry’s approach — its comparison, for example, of Japan’s modernization with China’s. Japan went with the flow and prospered. China resisted in the name of its ancient and glorious civilization and was tragically dismembered. The new Japan fell on the old China, tempting prey to a freshly roused predator. The year was 1894. Japan’s first modern war was an all-out victory.

A second victory, over Russia 10 years later, set Japan on a course for which nothing in its long history had prepared it. It was a world power, new on the scene and bursting with confidence. Western technology duly mastered merged with native yamato-damashii (Japanese spirit) now resurgent. Thus armed and armored, it was (or seemed) invincible.

Only corruption stalled its forward march — corrupt politicians, corrupt businessmen. They must be eliminated, said certain elements within the armed forces. The assassination on May 15, 1932, of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai climaxed a wave of terrorism. What strikes Toyo Keizai is the frenzied public support shown the 11 very young naval officers who stood trial. The court was overwhelmed with letters — more than a million, the magazine says, many written in blood. Token jail sentences followed, sending a clear message: violence was noble if motivated by yamato-damashii.

What is history? The past, many would say; but past, present and future are so interfused as to be at times indistinguishable. To teach fascism and militarism as extinct would be to ignore current threats to democracy, proliferating worldwide. And what of climate change? This most modern of crises is in fact ancient, says Toyo Keizai — and a driving force in Japanese history.

Japan may owe its first full-fledged civilization to climate change, speculates Kyoto University historian Takashi Okamoto — not warming but cooling. It hit northern China around the sixth to seventh centuries A.D, driving nomads south. Interlopers and natives clashed, causing turmoil that called for, and called forth, strong government. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) displaced the short-lived Sui (581-617) and reigned over a civilization that dazzled and transformed much of east Asia. Japan’s Nara Period (710-794) is Tang in little. A loose assemblage of clans became a nation, its government, religion, architecture and art as Chinese as a non-Chinese people could make it.

Ninth-century China warmed as sixth-century China had cooled. North China vegetation revived, the nomads returned, multiplied, gained strength, coalescing at last into the world-conquering Mongols, lords at their peak of the largest land empire in history. The Silk Road created a global commerce.

Japan, almost alone among the invaded, held the Mongols off — aided, it is said, by “divine winds.” Independent, isolated and free, it developed through the Muromachi Period (1392-1573) a startlingly unique culture, much admired to this day — noh theater, waka poetry, Zen, ikebana flower arranging, landscape gardening, calligraphy and so on.

The West, still in medieval childhood when Muromachi began, was soon to suffer a shattering blow: the 14th-century Black Death, a plague from the east, another symbol of globalism — a ghastly one and yet, as time was to show, cleansing too, in the purgative sense. Old thinking tottered, new thinking evolved, spawning new institutions, new human relationships, newness itself. The discovery of the new world came upon a people ripe for novelty. The rest, as they say, is history.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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