My historian friend Richard Minear tells me that Saburo Ienaga has been nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. He then follows up on this news by sending me Ienaga’s autobiography, which he has translated, “Japan’s Past, Japan’s Future: One Historian’s Odyssey” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

Most readers hardly need an introduction to Ienaga. He took the Japanese Ministry of Education to court for requiring him to change descriptions in history textbooks he wrote for high school and, when he did not comply, for not “certifying” them. Because the ministry’s censorship focused on Ienaga’s descriptions of Japan’s military role in Asia and, I must add, because some of its attempts were aimed at obvious euphemistic spin, court decisions made headlines — not only in Japan, but in the United States and elsewhere.

Ienaga may be “Japan’s single most famous historian,” as Minear says, but his autobiography may contain some surprises. Contrary to the image of a frail but dogged antagonist of the establishment that he has created from the mid-1960s onward, Ienaga was, in his earlier years, a retiring academic type who was drawn mostly to such ideas as the religio-philosophical proposition, “This world is empty; only the Buddha is true.”

Indeed, during what he would later call “the 15-year war,” from 1931, when Japan made its first major attempt to secure a foothold in northern China, to 1945, when the country was defeated, his intellectual pursuits and academic behavior were so utterly apolitical and so deeply oriented toward indigenous culture that he could have readily become an unwitting propaganda vehicle of the government, intent as it was on military and chauvinistic indoctrination. His early books dealt with such topics as “the logic of negation” in Japanese intellectual history, the early folk art known as Yamato-e, and the early religious view of nature.

In fact, Ienaga observes that his decision to challenge the government in his 50s and to persevere in that challenge derives mainly from the realization that he was “one of those spineless characters who during the war had taken no action in opposition to the war [and] watched powerless from the sidelines as my country met destruction.”

His conversion to active politicking came rather slowly, the historian admits. Japan’s famous or, depending on your viewpoint, infamous about-face on the heels of a complete defeat so disgusted him that he almost turned rightist. Practically all of those who had insisted until just the day before that Japan carry on the war till “the one hundred million are annihilated” now “couldn’t find enough hours in the day for singing the praises of ‘democracy.’ “

It took Ienaga some years to become convinced that the constitution that Gen. Douglas MacArthur handed to Japan had “epoch-making significance” in its rejection of war and its protection of fundamental human rights. And it took some more years before he decided to use the court for an activist cause, to question the government’s willful intervention.

So what were the Education Ministry’s objections?

To cite the case that probably attracted the most attention worldwide, Ienaga wrote in his 1981 textbook that in September 1937 China’s Nationalist government agreed to work with its other enemy, the Communist Party, to “resist Japan’s aggression (‘shinryaku’).” The ministry’s certifier objected to the use of the word “aggression” on the ground that it has “a very strong connotation . . . of criminality,” pointing out that Ienaga had elsewhere used the neutral word “advance” (“shinshutsu”) to describe “the earlier European encroachment on China.”

In this instance, the ministry in the end allowed Ienaga to retain the original word, but the time and cost required to deal with this kind of pettifogging was enormous.

In a 1963 case, one reason for the rejection of Ienaga’s textbook was the use of a photograph of a veteran, begging on a street, whose right arm is replaced with a crude mechanical limb. Photos such as this showing the “ravages of war,” in the ministry’s view, were inappropriate in a textbook.

Whether or not the state should have the authority to inspect and certify school textbooks is a legitimate question. In the United States, the federal government has no such authority, but local school boards exercise a similar discretionary power, accepting or rejecting textbooks as they see fit. And publishers try to adjust the contents of their textbooks to each school board’s taste and preferences.

Saburo Ienaga was, of course, brave to challenge that authority. But as someone looking at the situation from outside, I must note, with some regret, that his action may have had one unintended consequence: the reinforcement of the impression overseas that Japan sweeps anything inconvenient in its recent past under the rug or simply denies its existence. The reality is different. Historical investigation and debate in Japan is as vigorous as in many other countries.

In making Ienaga’s autobiography available in English, Richard Minear has done something I wouldn’t have attempted. He strongly disagrees with the author in one crucial historical interpretation, yet he has translated his work.

As he details in his book, “The Pacific War: 1931-1945” (translator Frank Baldwin, Random House, 1978), Ienaga’s argument is that the 15-year war was solely the result of a totally misguided, evil domestic policy. His is a view even more unforgiving than the judgment of the Tokyo Trial.

Minear, who has written “Victors’ Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial,” asks a simple question and answers it: “A history of World War II without economics, diplomatic negotiations, the war policies of other countries? Unlikely.”

But Minear admires Ienaga for his resistance to “the master narrative of the state.” And to clarify Ienaga’s commitments and arguments, he adds various quotations at strategic points.

Those interested in Ienaga’s nomination for the Nobel Prize may check the site www.vcn.bc.ca/alpha

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