• SHARE

A junior high-school history textbook edited by a nationalist group continues to stir controversy and provoke anger, especially in South Korea. The textbook in question, written by the Japanese Society for Textbook Reform, which calls existing history textbooks “masochistic,” recently cleared censorship by the Education Ministry after drastic revisions were made.

The original text put a positive spin on the Pacific War and the events that led to it. It did not say anything significant about what happened in Japan’s former colonies. It portrayed Japan more as a victim in the war — referring to the U.S. air raids, for example — and devoted little space to the Asian nations invaded by the Japanese military, saying only that the fighting had “caused considerable damage” to those nations.

The ministry’s curriculum guidelines stress the importance of “deepening (children’s) love for the nation’s history,” but also call for “cultivating a spirit of international cooperation.” Because textbooks are censored in light of these guidelines, it is only natural that the textbook in question was drastically revised. The censors requested a total of 137 changes — more than five times the average for other history textbooks.

Over 70 descriptions were rejected for being “difficult to understand or likely to cause misunderstanding.” In many other cases, it was determined that the editors had “adopted one-sided views without due consideration.” In short, the original text contained, as one censor put it, “many self-righteous descriptions” that would not have helped children “develop an ability to consider historical facts from various angles.”

The censorship rules include a “neighboring country clause” that says, in effect, that history textbooks should be edited so as not to hurt relations with countries such as China and South Korea. In the case of the textbook at issue, however, this clause was not applied, perhaps because the need for such diplomatic consideration is only too obvious.

Some members of the Textbook Review Council reportedly wanted to reject the entire textbook. Under the existing censorship system, however, there is no way of preventing its publication because, in the words of a ministry official, the editors “completely accepted” the changes requested by the censors. So approval of the revised textbook comes as no surprise, even though the final text still contains some dubious descriptions.

To the editors, the revisions must be humiliating, because their descriptions of the nation’s militaristic past were drastically changed. The statement that “there are no right or wrong wars” — a key point made by the textbook-reform group — was deleted. Yet the scholars who wrote the book remained silent. If they had written it with conviction, they should have refuted the censors’ argument.

The censors, meanwhile, left some stones unturned. For example, the approved text includes descriptions such as these: “On Attu Island (Japanese troops) would not budge an inch against U.S. forces . . . and died for honor (the Emperor),” and “Even girls of Himeyuri Butai (Star Lily Corps, a unit of field hospital nurses in Okinawa) fought bravely.” These emotionally charged statements could lead students to believe that Japan had waged a just war.

Clearly, the censorship system has its limits. Wrong or improper descriptions must be revised or deleted, but revisions provide no assurance that editors and their sympathizers will change their perceptions of history. In fact, censorship notwithstanding, other history textbooks also include equivocal descriptions of the wars waged by Japan against neighboring countries.

To hold a correct view of history we must accept all facts, including negative ones. Without such an impartial attitude toward history, we cannot develop a true love for our country. The key question here is whether history textbooks make appropriate reading for the children of 21st-century Japan.

In this regard, it is worrying that politics is intruding on the process of textbook selection, with an increasing number of petitions submitted to local assemblies calling on education boards, not school teachers, to make the selection. There is a kind of political campaign behind this. Teachers have a better grasp of students’ needs than board members, not all of whom are education specialists. Since more than 250 elementary and junior high-school textbooks are available, leaving the work of selection entirely to education boards is unrealistic.

It is notable that the new curriculum guidelines call for teachers to show greater ingenuity and resourcefulness in the classroom. As a step in this direction, a government-deregulation program says textbook selection should be left to individual schools. Parents and citizens should also have a say in the selection process, but the key players are individual teachers, who know their students best.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW