Textbooks toe the government line

The results of the education ministry’s screening of junior high school textbooks to be used from fiscal 2016 show that social studies textbooks strongly reflect government views on Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea as well as other modern history issues. It must be questioned whether this trend in children’s education is healthy and desirable.

Behind this trend is the screening standard adopted in January 2014, which says that when dealing with certain issues in the nation’s modern history, textbooks’ descriptions must include the governments’ unified views or finalized court rulings on those issues if they exist. It also says that if textbook authors mention views or figures related to issues in modern history that are not accepted by consensus, they must clearly say so.

Because of the new standard, all 20 social studies textbooks in the fields of history, geography and civics now say that the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the Takeshima Islets in the Sea of Japan, in addition to the islands off Hokkaido controlled by Russia, are Japan’s territories, explaining in detail the government’s position on sovereignty over these islands, including their historical backgrounds. Each textbook has devoted about double the space of previous editions to issues involving territorial disputes.

It is relevant for the textbooks to mention the government’s views on the disputes, but one-sided descriptions can be problematic. These textbooks fail to carry detailed descriptions of the positions of other governments involved. Faithful to the screening standard, the textbooks say that since Japan effectively controls the Senkaku Islands, no territorial dispute exists over them between Japan and China.

Exposing students mainly to one side’s position in a dispute makes it difficult for them to understand why issues exist over the islands. One-sided descriptions deprive students of a chance to think about how the disputes between Japan and its neighbors can be resolved and could even foment prejudice or antipathy toward the citizens of the other countries.

Some social studies textbooks for fifth and sixth graders at elementary school that started to be used this month but were not subject to the new screening standard already mention Senkakus and Takeshima issues and also reflect the government’s positions.

While descriptions of the territorial issues between Japan and its neighbors have been expanded, references to other issues in modern history such as the Nanjing massacre and the “comfort women” who were forced into providing sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II have been reduced over the years.

In the 1990s, textbooks stated the number of Chinese killed during the Nanjing massacre, which took place from late 1937 to early 1938, using such estimates as 200,000. In more recent editions, numerical estimates were omitted. In one textbook that was subjected to the latest screening, the phrase “the killing of many prisoners of war and residents” in a previous edition was changed into “many dead and injured people involving prisoners of war and residents.” In the latest version of another textbook, the phrase “decried as ‘act of barbarity’ by the Japanese armed forces,” which had appeared in the main body in the prior edition, was downgraded to a footnote.

In 1997, seven history textbooks for use in junior high schools included references to the comfort women issue. They had passed the first screening since the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which admitted that “the then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women” and that “in many cases they were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.” But the number of textbooks that included references to the issue fell to three in 2002 and to two in 2006 — and they disappeared altogether in 2011. It appears that textbook authors and publishers exercised self-censorship on politically controversial issues to avoid to running into problems in the screening process.

This year, Manabiya, a new entrant into school textbook publishing, took up the comfort women issue. Its textbook became the first one to quote from the Kono statement. But the education ministry told the authors to add the 2007 government position that no material evidence had surfaced to directly show that the Japanese military forcibly took the women to frontline brothels. The authors were also told to drop the testimony by Kim Hak Sun, the first Korean to come out as a former comfort woman in 1991, a related drawing and a map showing the locations of frontline brothels.

The general trait of junior high school social studies textbooks for use beginning in fiscal 2016 is that government views have come to the fore on various issues, reducing the diversity in their content. Attempts to play down Japan’s wartime atrocities could result in students not having accurate knowledge about the nation’s militarist past. The government would do well to remember that uniform textbooks compiled by the state during and before World War II went hand in hand with Japan’s militarism.

The trend that has surfaced in the latest screening appears to run counter to the education ministry’s own effort to revise the curriculum guideline so that students will gain the ability to face and solve problems by working with others. In this age of globalization, it is all the more important for students to be aware of divergent opinions and stances on issues. This forms the foundation of being able to solve problems in mutually acceptable ways. Learning about issues in modern history can help youths gain this ability, and textbooks should be designed to help train students in this matter.

The education ministry should return to the original idea of the postwar screening system — to let authors and publishers give full play to their ingenuity to produce intellectually interesting and challenging learning materials.