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Japanese school-textbook publishers are puzzled over contradictory moves recently made by separate administrative authorities. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology imposed government views on the publishers when it announced the results of screening of textbooks for high school freshmen late last month. The Fair Trade Commission, meanwhile, decided to lift restrictions on sales promotion activities for school textbooks.

Tighter censorship affected social-studies textbooks above all. Censors changed the wording in textbook descriptions of court rulings on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the Iraq war and the deployment of Ground Self-Defense Force troops in the country, and Japan’s territorial disputes with neighboring countries.

Regarding the Yasukuni issue, the censored versions emphasized that many of the past court rulings on the issue avoided judgment on the constitutionality of Koizumi’s visits and that Koizumi made the visits in his private capacity. (Plaintiffs accused Koizumi of contravening the constitutional separation of church and state by making the visits.) Concerning the Iraq war, the examiners changed the phrase “preemptive attack” — describing the U.S. initiation of hostilities — to a “military attack.” The edited version failed to clarify the U.S. responsibility for starting the war without a cause.

With regard to the territorial disputes, the edited versions stated clearly that the Northern Territories, Senkaku islands and Takeshima Islands were inherent Japanese territories. Revisions were also made in textbook drafts that said sovereignty over some islands was being “negotiated” with China and South Korea. The changes stirred immediate criticism from China, South Korea and Russia.

In a move reflecting conservative views, the examiners also deleted the phrase “gender free” and passages calling for discussions on sex. The education ministry’s textbook screening guidelines call for “fairer and more balanced textbooks,” but the overly zealous censors often deviate from the guidelines and impose government views.

In rejecting international criticism of school textbooks, the government insists that they are not state-designated. That may be true, but the ministry censors tend to directly reflect government views. The present censorship system is not appropriate for democratic education, which should respect diverse opinion. In non-compulsory high school education, active classroom debate should be promoted on various issues.

The education ministry sets maximum prices for high school textbooks by subject and grade. Since high school students are required to pay for their textbooks, the government should not intervene in their prices. However, it is reasonable that the government, which pays for textbooks used in compulsory education, regulate their prices.

In the past, the education ministry has been restricting textbook publishers’ sales promotion activities. It has prohibited the publishers from giving teachers free copies of teaching manuals and textbook drafts, holding study sessions for teachers and using teachers for textbook sales promotion. It also discourages the publishers from distributing brochures. These restrictions are in line with the FTC’s policy of banning textbook publishers from unfair trade practices, under the Antimonopoly Law, of offering monetary and other gifts to potential buyers, entertaining them and defaming rival textbooks.

As part of deregulation, however, the FTC has announced a decision to lift restrictions on textbook sales activities. Liberalization of sales activities for school textbooks is likely to cast in doubt the legitimacy of various restrictions that the ministry has imposed.

Meanwhile, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, have agreed on a definition of patriotism to be included in legislation for revising the Fundamental Law of Education. Under the agreement, patriotism is defined as “an attitude that respects tradition and culture, and loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them.” The revised law inevitably will be reflected in textbook screening, and the examiners will attach importance to descriptions of “patriotism.”

As a result, textbook screening is likely to become more inward-looking and create more international tension. The only way to prevent such developments is to abolish the practice altogether. Screening should be abolished first for high school textbooks and then for middle-school and primary-school textbooks.

Fortunately, the Society for Writing New History Textbooks, a group of scholars that has stirred tension with China and South Korea by writing middle-school textbooks based on nationalistic views, is moving to moderate its rigid stance. Chairman Hidetsugu Yagi and Secretary General Masaharu Miyazaki of the group visited China last December and met with the director and other members of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Summary of the discussions was published in the March and April issues of the monthly magazine Seiron published by the Sankei Shimbun.

Japanese and Chinese participants in the talks failed to bridge their differences on textbooks. However, Yagi deserves praise for stating that Japan and China should promote friendship by sharing perceptions on historical facts and for expressing a hope that Yagi and Miyazaki’s visit will be helpful in bringing about such sharing and promoting friendship.

Yagi and Miyazaki were relieved of their posts by the society in late February for visiting China without its authorization. However, the Sankei Shimbun later reported that Yagi would be reappointed as chairmanship by July, when the group holds a general meeting.

Hopefully, the group will continue its dialogues with China and contribute to the improvement of Japan-China relations.

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