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The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has announced the results of its screening textbooks scheduled for use in junior high schools beginning in April 2006. Two things are particularly notable with regard to neighboring Asian nations such as South Korea and China. First, descriptions of Japan’s wartime actions have been simplified or softened. Second, the government’s views are reflected in censors’ explanatory references to territorial issues.

History textbooks no longer mention ianfu (comfort women) — a controversial term that refers to women who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Some texts use roundabout expressions, such as “those who were sent to comfort facilities.”

Indirect expressions are also used to describe Koreans who were forced to work in Japan during the war. The word “kyousei” (forced) is nowhere to be found. Texts that refer to those Koreans merely say that they were “brought to Japan.”

On the issues of colonial rule and war, censors offer much the same opinion as before. Referring to the original text edited by a nationalist-minded publisher, whose history textbooks have drawn sharp reactions from South Korea, they maintain that descriptions about wartime colonies “might create misunderstandings” and that the text “describes only the damage suffered by Japanese.”

The censorship system is designed to check privately edited textbooks on the basis of commonly accepted academic views. Since views such as those on the colonization of Korea and other wartime activities remain essentially unchanged, censors’ opinion should also remain unchanged.

Yet screening officials took a different approach to territorial issues. A case in point: They altered a reference to the Takeshima (Tok-do in Korean) islets to reflect a government view. That publisher’s text on civics said “there is confrontation between South Korea and Japan over the territorial rights involving the Takeshima (Tok-do) islets.”

The official comment was that the statement “might cause misunderstandings.” So it was rephrased as “Although Takeshima is an integral part of Japanese territory, it is unlawfully occupied by South Korea.”

A similar change was made in references to the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands, which are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. The corrected passages say these islands are also “an integral part of Japanese territory.”

These censored versions are likely to provoke further reactions from South Korea and other Asian nations because they are based on the government’s views. The government must be careful not to bring territorial disputes into the classroom. These problems should be resolved at the government level. Politicians, not teachers, should use their brains to work out solutions.

One wonders whether Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama and other ministry officials are trying seriously enough to improve relations with our Asian neighbors. Their comments, which often seem more provocative than conciliatory, could not make things any worse.

In November last year, Mr. Nakayama said, “It is really good that there are now fewer references (in textbooks) to ‘juugun ianfu’ (comfort women for soldiers) and ‘kyousei renkou’ (being taken away for forced labor).” He later said he was just expressing his personal view. More recently, he said the ministry’s curriculum guidelines should state clearly that Takeshima and Senkaku belong to Japan.

Censorship must be neutral. This is ensured by censors making decisions in accordance with academics’ objective views. If textbook screening is politicized, confidence in the censorship system itself will be lost. Political interference must be rejected.

It is certainly important to teach children about history, but a first essential step in history education is to make them think about how Japan should live peacefully with neighboring nations. The classroom is not the place to play up disputes.

If the state censorship of textbooks is contributing to frictions between nations, it should be abolished. That is not an impossible proposition. In fact, most Western nations do not have a censorship system.

Mutual cooperation is key to mutual prosperity. That may be easier said than done in the real world, but the importance of “living together,” of respecting each other, cannot be overemphasized in the increasingly interdependent world in which we live. That should be the central message of history and civics textbooks.

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