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Since the end of World War II, the censorship of history textbooks in Japan has raised political and diplomatic issues. Recently, a social-studies textbook edited by a nationalist group again stirred controversy, offending the Chinese and South Koreans.

The textbook in question — a history book for junior high schools — was written under the direction of the Society to Write New History Textbooks, which has criticized the current social-studies text for presenting a “masochistic” view of history.

The original version of the new text rubbed nerves in China and South Korea. People there thought the book twisted historical facts, such as the annexation of Korea and the Nanjing Massacre, to suit Japan’s convenience. Education Ministry censors recommended changes to 137 descriptions, and the publisher, Fusosha, accepted all of them.

Hardliners in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are unhappy. For one thing, they feel that China and South Korea are interfering in Japan’s internal affairs. Once again, the censorship system is coming up for critical review.

The so-called textbook issue has a long history. Until the mid-1980s, history texts for public schools were criticized chiefly by the ruling conservative party for their “leftist tendencies.” The leading opponent of censorship at the time was Saburo Ienaga, professor at the Tokyo University of Education (now Tsukuba University), who sued the government for violating the Constitution.

In 1986, a group of conservative-minded scholars launched a campaign against “left-leaning” textbooks and issued a textbook of their own: “A New History of Japan,” a text for senior high schools edited by the “National Council to Protect Japan.” The book, which contained nostalgic descriptions of the nation’s past, came under such strong criticism from China and South Korea that the Education Ministry was forced to have it rewritten.

The latest gambit from the Society to Write New History Textbooks can be seen in the same context. The group rejects descriptions of “comfort women” — Koreans and others who provided sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II — and brands existing history texts “anti-Japanese.” The book it has edited for junior high schools is intended for use beginning April 2002.

Members of the society, as if to outrival leftist groups, are mounting a nationwide campaign to “improve textbooks.” Reports say the group has submitted petitions to local assemblies urging respect for the judgment of education boards, not school teachers, in textbook selection.

The Education Ministry’s censorship rules treat politics and religion fairly. The rules say the censors must not favor or blame particular political or religious groups and their beliefs or faiths. It is unavoidable, however, that censorship should reflect to some extent the basic thinking of the party in power.

For example, the curriculum guidelines for sixth-grade history texts clearly reflects the conservative nature of the administration. Historical figures who fought the Imperial Court or the establishment are excluded from the list of prominent Japanese recommended for coverage.

Regarding criticisms from China and South Korea, the censorship rules were updated in 1982 to include the so-called neighboring-country clause, which says in effect that history texts should be edited so that they do not cause friction or acrimony in Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors.

However, the rise of nationalistic sentiments — epitomized by the “Ishihara boom” surrounding Tokyo’s outspoken governor, Shintaro Ishihara — could tip the balance. Should a textbook issue arise in the future, more Japanese are likely to criticize China and South Korea for meddling in Japan’s domestic affairs. It is also likely that the neighboring-country clause itself will come under attack from hardline conservatives.

In order to avoid that, it is necessary to abolish censorship by the Education Ministry. The idea is not new. In September 1996, shortly before a Lower House election, the LDP tried to include in its campaign promises a plan to scrap the censorship of senior high school textbooks. That attempt, however, was foiled by conservative members.

The plan can be revived. If it is implemented in stages — involving senior high school texts in the first stage, junior high school texts in the second and elementary school texts in the third — then the political backlash can be reduced, if not eliminated.

Centralized textbook censorship is a rarity among the industrialized democracies. In the United States, textbooks are either approved by state authorities or adopted at the discretion of individual schools. In Britain, voluntary adoption is the rule. In Germany, censorship is exercised by provincial authorities.

In Japan, it may be impossible to abolish central-government censorship immediately. But it can be phased out by delegating authority from the Education Ministry to prefectural governments. That would foster diverse views about the nation’s past and prevent any thought control by the central government.

In Europe, joint studies have been conducted on history textbooks. Germany started a research program with France in 1950 and with Poland in 1972, bringing together history teachers from both sides. The research results, which were published as “recommendations,” have been adopted by some provinces as censorship guidelines or teaching references.

In 1988, historians from 10 countries, including France, Germany and Britain, began editing history texts on Europe with the backing of the European Commission. In 1992, the editing was completed and textbooks were published in the languages of participating countries.

In 1992, Japan and South Korea launched a similar project, with the participation of about 30 history teachers from junior and senior high schools and universities. As things stand, however, the project’s contribution to actual textbook compilation seems to be limited at best.

This bilateral program is an important attempt to promote reconciliation between the two countries. The Education Ministry should give it solid support. It is hoped that a similar program will be undertaken by history researchers from Japan and China.

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