A junior high-school history textbook edited under the direction of a nationalist group, the Japanese Society for Textbook Reform, continues to stir controversy both here and abroad. The textbook recently received the green light from the Education and Science Ministry after the editors accepted all of the 137 changes requested by the censors. However, China and South Korea are still dissatisfied with the revised version.

Professor Nobukatsu Fujioka of the University of Tokyo, with whom I am acquainted, is an executive member of the group. I was once interviewed by him for an education magazine, after serving as an election observer in Cambodia in 1993. At that time, Fujioka blamed the Japanese media for disparaging the election, which had been conducted with the full cooperation of the international community. I agreed with him completely. Two years later, however, I found myself at odds with him over a different issue: Japan’s wartime history. Fujioka criticized those who acknowledged Japanese acts of aggression for holding a “masochistic” view of history.

In the case of the textbook at issue, the uncensored version included a sentence that read: “It is difficult to distinguish wars in terms of right or wrong. . . . Wars are waged as a measure of last resort when nations in a clash of national interests find it impossible to settle their problems politically.” The statement revealed a flimsy view of history that treated war as a kind of game. No wonder the censors requested a revision.

Those who refuse to see wars in moral terms must deny the findings of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial. They must also reject the U.N.-sponsored tribunals on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and even the very idea behind the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the rules for which were adopted in 1998. Such a view precludes efforts to learn lessons from past wars and thereby find ways to promote world peace and prosperity.

Japanese nationalists bristle at the talk here and abroad of the Nanjing Massacre (the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in that eastern Chinese city in 1937). They say the reported numbers of victims — 200,000 or 300,000, for instance — are grossly exaggerated. However, a Foreign Ministry official warns: “It is unproductive to give too much attention to the numbers because Chinese like to use (exaggerated) expressions such as “white hair as long as 3,000 ‘jo’ ” (one jo equals about 3 meters).”

Generally, nationalists here tend to focus only on the issue of the numbers of victims. This was evident, for instance, at a meeting in February of Japanese veterans, businessmen and researchers, some of whom had been in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation of that country. The meeting, which I was invited to attend, discussed the so-called Pontianak Incident, the massacre of residents committed by Japanese troops in that seaside city of West Kalimantan.

According to local newspapers, the Japanese naval garrison in the city — which had a population of 60,000 at the time — killed 21,000 residents on the grounds that they had plotted an anti-Japanese uprising. Some Japanese scholars are said to have accepted that figure. Participants in the meeting, however, were sharply divided on the matter. Some said only 1,500 were actually killed, but others said at least 5,000 were killed.

The meeting also revealed a significant division of opinion regarding the incident itself. Some said the Japanese should candidly accept the fact of the blood bath, but others argued that we should place emphasis on correcting the reported numbers. I was particularly concerned that it was younger people with no wartime experience, rather than former soldiers in their 80s, who were attaching such importance to the figures.

It seemed to me that those younger participants — people who did not experience any of the suffering and trauma of war — were trying, but only in their minds, to restore national pride. Instead of fretting and fuming over the numbers, they ought to focus on the war itself. The meeting reinforced my feeling that Japanese schools have neglected to teach children sufficiently about the causes and effects of the reckless wars in which Japan had involved itself.

Many nationalists naively believe that only Chinese and South Koreans have anti-Japanese feelings. But it is not just Chinese and South Koreans who continue to resent what the Japanese military did during the Pacific War. For instance, anti-Japanese sentiment ran high in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, in 1994 when the city celebrated the 50th anniversary of its liberation from Japanese occupation. I was living in Manila that year as a teacher of Japanese. For about a month before and after the celebrations, local newspapers carried almost daily stories about the atrocities perpetrated by Japanese troops, to the point where I hardly dared to walk in the streets.

Japanese nationalists contend that Japan is not the only country to have established colonies. They should read an editorial that appeared in the Aug. 24, 1994 edition of Inquirer, a leading Manila newspaper. The editorial said in effect: People even expressed gratitude for invasions by Western powers, but sharply criticized the Japanese invasion of China. Why? First, because Japan is an Asian country. Second, because Japan lost the war, but those Western powers did not.

The first reason was also given by Mahatma Gandhi, who led India’s anti-British movement. Japanese nationalists emphasize that the Pacific War helped liberate Asian colonies. But they ignore the fact that the Japanese military killed many people in China and the Philippines and that, as a result, Japan lost Asia’s confidence as the leading power in the region.

The nationalists’ movement to “improve” history textbooks could bring to naught Japan’s efforts over the past half-century to regain international trust. We need not take a revisionist view of history to restore national pride, because we already have many things to be proud of. We lead the world in terms of our trade surplus, overseas credit and official development assistance. The crime rate here is the lowest in the world. The Japanese enjoy on average a longer life expectancy than any other country.

Currently, Japan does not have many immigrants living on its soil, as do Germany and Austria. So it is unlikely, at least for the time being, that xenophobic nationalism will arise here. Still, the Japanese could become more susceptible to nationalist temptations as they grow uneasy over the future amid the protracted economic slump and the mounting pressures of globalization. Perhaps the best way to prevent the spread of narrow-minded nationalism is for the government to eliminate economic uncertainties through bold structural reform.

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