The Education, Science and Technology Ministry has screened and approved 306 textbooks, most of them for first-year high-school students, for use from next spring. Departing from the original screening policy, the ministry has accepted inclusion of topics and concepts beyond the scope of the current courses of study — a response to criticism that the present curriculum has lowered students’ academic achievements. On the other hand, the ministry has strictly imposed government views on politically sensitive issues such as territorial disputes, the Iraq war and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

To better prepare more advanced students for college entrance exams, mathematics and science textbooks were permitted to include topics and concepts beyond the scope of the guidelines, including Hero’s formula, acceleration, ions, DNA and the hydrogenolysis of salt.

And in an effort to address complaints about the falling academic performances of less gifted students, textbook writers and publishers incorporated scrupulous and easy-to-understand explanations into textbooks. The number of pages in all textbooks — foreign languages, Japanese, geography and history, civics, mathematics and science — have been increased.

The writers’ and publishers’ efforts to make students interested in mathematics and science are laudable at a time when it is feared that many young people are shunning these subjects. But the fact that textbook writers felt compelled to include topics and concepts not covered by the guidelines and made additional efforts to rouse students’ academic interest raises the question of whether the guidelines themselves fail to sufficiently cover topics and concepts that must be taught in a logical, systematic and interesting way. The ministry needs to address this problem when revising the guidelines, possibly in fiscal 2006.

An increasing number of textbook publishers have issued two or more textbooks on the same subject, some aimed at students planning to go on to college and others for those who underachieve. The polarization of the contents of textbooks reflects a polarization of high-school students in terms of academic achievement. The priority should be to prevent students from becoming underachievers in the first place.

Among English textbooks, for example, those for better students contain supplements of advanced reading material while those for slower students contain basics that are normally taught at junior high school or express English pronunciation using katakana. It is wrong for educators to think that dumbing-down textbooks is an acceptable way to address polarization in students’ academic achievements.

The ministry also sought changes to 26 of the 40 references to the Senkaku Islands and the Takeshima islets, over which Japan has territorial disputes with China and South Korea, respectively. It demanded an expression that clearly stated that the islands belong to Japan. One draft textbook said that sovereignty over the Takeshima islets is being “negotiated” with South Korea. This expression was approved in the previous screening, but this time the text was changed to say that the islets “belong to Shimane Prefecture and South Korea also claims them.”

One textbook described Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine as “official,” but the ministry ordered the deletion of that word. The ministry also objected to a phrase stating that the Fukuoka District Court in April 2004 ruled a visit by the prime minister to Yasukuni to be unconstitutional. On the grounds that the ruling was by a lower court and that the state formally won the trial because the court ruled it didn’t have to pay the plaintiffs compensation, the ministry ordered it changed. The end result was a meaningless phrase that merely acknowledged the Fukuoka District Court handed down a ruling on the prime minister’s Yasukuni visit.

The ministry also demanded a change in a description of the Iraq war, which the United States started in 2003. A phrase that described the initiation of hostilities as a “preemptive attack” was changed into a “military attack” — a term that ignores the fact that the Bush administration’s decision to go to war was influenced by its doctrine of preemption strategy.

Accuracy is the bottom line of textbooks. But accuracy must be bolstered by information that enlarges students’ perspectives and highlights the existence of different opinions, thus enabling them to think more deeply about what is happening in Japan and around the world. The ministry should implement changes that can achieve these objectives.

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.