Rewriting History: Controversial Japanese Textbooks

There is plenty of drama that exists between Japan and the international community. Japan and its whaling? Japan’s and Korea’s fight for territorial islands? The bad blood between Japan and China post Asian Pacific Wars? The list goes on and on and on. There is so much drama that it would make the self-proclaimed “We Know Drama” American cable channel TNT blush with envy.

One controversy you may not be fully aware of is Japanese history textbooks used in their compulsory schools and how history is being told to students.

Fudging history through education is nothing new. Still, some of the drama is instigated by these books. What exactly is the problem?

The Narrative Issue

The issue with these textbooks are the narratives, especially when retelling the recently historic event’s of Japan’s colonialism and imperialism. Outlook of the narratives have been of debate among Japanese politicians and scholars, liberals and conservatives. Many progressive & left-leaning Japanese academics and the international community believe the victimization of the people of Asia are whitewashed, understated, and/or not recognized in these textbooks. On the opposite camp, conservative Japanese nationals believe the textbooks lack the tone of victimhood for the Japanese people.

Getting a textbook into the hands of Japanese children is a fairly simple process when observed from the outside. Textbook makers send drafts of their product to Japan’s Ministry of Education, where government officials review the material and ensures the material follows the curriculum. Corrections are noted on the drafts, which are sent back to the textbook company. If the Ministry likes you enough (interpret this as you will), they’ll add your book to the very short list of textbooks allowed in Japanese public schools. As you can imagine, the Japanese school textbook industry is cutthroat. And it is a very cash lucrative business. Depending on the age groups, the list of allowed textbooks can range from only 1-2 to the low 10s. These are options for every school in the entire nation.

Controversial Textbook

In 2001 and again in 2006, the Ministry of Education approved a more controversial-than-usual textbook that could be used to instruct students aged between 13 and 15. It was one out of eight available options for the schools. The book created an uproar with China and South Korea. Written by a group of nationalists called the Atarashii Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai (Tsukuru Kai for short), the book whitewashed Japan’s militaristic past and glossed over many of the atrocities conducted.

What historic events were whitewashed and glossed over? Here a few examples.

  • In reference to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre (dubbed as Nanjing Incident in Japanese textbooks), where 300,000 Chinese civilians were slaughtered, the atrocity was written as an “incident” in which “many” Chinese were killed.
  • The use of the word “invasion” when referring to Japan’s military occupation of Asian countries was avoided.
  • In regards to the occupation of Korea, the book original stated, “The US and European military powers approved Japan’s annexation of Korea in return for Japan’s approval of their colonial rule elsewhere.” This is in reference to the 1905 secret meeting by the U.S. Secretary of War William Taft and Japan’s Prime Minister Katsura called the Taft-Katsura Agreement. Although, not  a signed agreement as the title suggests, it was a set of notes consisting of private conversation of opinions by the two politicians. Taft recognized Japan’s interests in Korea, and Katsura recognized the U.S. interest in the Philippines.
  • In regards to territorial disputes between Japan-Korea and Japan-Chinese, descriptions such as illegal occupation and invasion of sovereign land were used throughout the text.

Aside from this particular book, out of the eight books for the age bracket, only one mentions “comfort women,” the couple hundred thousands of sex slaves from invaded Asian countries that were forced to service the Japanese military during the war.

Former education minister Nariaki Nakayama said he was proud that Japan succeeded in getting rid of the term “wartime sex slaves.” He later openly agreed to an e-mail sent to him that the “victimized women in Asia should be proud of being comfort women.”

The Tsukuru Kai textbook, although an option to compulsory schools, is not exactly taking Japanese schools by storm. In the year of its release in 2001,  the book was used by 0.0039% of the junior high school population. In 2005, the number rose to 0.4%.

Is it proper to word history in a way that it reduces the severity of the country’s actions? Is this problem really unique to Japan? I, for one, can think of many history lessons from my U.S. compulsory school attendance, where the historic accounts told were very questionable.

 

  • http://rachelnabors.com Rachel Nabors

    I think it’s good to show both sides from the viewpoints of the time. Let me use an example: My grandfather stole your grandfather’s horse.

    In a textbook, we could tell this story like this:
    My grandfather was under pressure from his father to plow a new field before planting season was over. Your grandfather’s horse was stronger and would do the job faster. So my grandfather stole the horse to achieve his goals. At the time he thought he was “borrowing” the horse, but then he decided to keep it. Both of these actions were wrong, but because he was a part of big shot family, your grandfather couldn’t get any help from the local authorities and never saw the horse again. Today, tensions are still high between our families. It’s been suggested that my family give your family a modern equivalent of a horse in repayment, but your family thinks more recompense is needed, as that horse’s labor and the interest incurred from that labor was also lost.

    And the comment from the education minister about how former comfort women should be proud really squicks me out. Feminism still has so far to go the world over.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Yep, the best approach in teaching is to go over all view points and perspectives. Only works if the resources are available to the students though…

  • https://www.facebook.com/philipphilipphiliphilipphilip Philip Warren

    They do that here too! When they talk about World War 2 They always talk about Germany killing millions of people but not about Japan doing the same to China, Korea, and the Philippines. I like Japan and the culture and all but you can’t leave something like that out. It gives people the impression that Japan is perfect. At least they mention Pearl Harbor.

  • Cameron Doran

    What a coincidence! Today I presented this topic in Japanese class! Actually, funny story. Last night I wrote a short essay for it entitled “Japanese History the Japanese Don’t Know” (日本人が知らない日本の歴史) and uploaded it to Lang-8. I guess I probably should have anticipated that it wouldn’t get the most positive reactions after mentioning the Nanjing massacre, the Unit 731 biological experiments in Manchukuo, and a recent poll that revealed 26% of Japanese people don’t even know that Japan once annexed Korea… but yeah. Some people got pretty angry and berated me in Japanese in the comments. One particularly nationalistic fellow tried to prove to me that the Nanjing massacre never even happened! That it was all Chinese propaganda! I mean, the U.S. has its fair share of historic atrocities (Native American genocide, 2 atomic bombings, Japanese internment camps, slavery, etc.) which are probably also underrepresented in our history books, but to deny that an event of that magnitude is completely fake?! I mean, Japan is awesome and all, but no wonder there is still so much political tension in Asia…

  • Larry

    It’s difficult for any society to admit and recognize its past transgressions. The U.S. is a good example. People are still reluctant to admit the atrocities that were perpetrated on Africans and Native Americans. Recent Japanese television has featured a number of shows that cover the WWII period and many of them portray the ignorance of the general population about what was going on in places like Manchuria. I don’t think it does any good for a country to wallow in guilt over the past, but they should forthrightly recognize those sins and move on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    Controversy occurs within Japan too. Here’s an article from the JPRI that deals with how Okinawans challenged the Ministry of Education due to the military’s actions towards the Ryûkyû during the Battle of Okinawa: http://www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp48.html
    It’s interesting because in the end it boils down to the small linguistic nuances between 自殺 (wasteful suicide) and 自決 (determined suicide).

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     On the plus side, now you know how to swear at people in Japanese!

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     And they told me Clip-Clop ran away to join the circus… ;_;

  • M_Nimon

    Fewer and fewer Japanese will believe that the Nanking “incident” ever even occurred, as long as they’re being under-educated in school about the issue.  It’s almost comical at this point to get online replies from right-wingers (from any country) to the effect of, “Oh, yeah, well…YOUR country’s done X, Y, and Z to people over the years too!  So nyahh!” 

    Honestly, if Japan had formulated the A-bomb first, I think we all know how that would’ve gone down.  But the past is the past, and that’s where it should remain.  Unfortunately, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and it sounds like Japan’s neglecting that particularly blemish on its own history…

  • Bmmp

    History is unique and unlike other academic areas of study.
    The further back we look, the harder it is not only to get accurate information, but accurate perspectives on that information.  A Russian history book written during WWII for example would not only look different from from the same book written today, but look somewhat different from a German and U.S. history book as well.

    It’s an unfortunate reality, so the public has two moral obligations.  One, to read all the materials available and to determine the truth.  Second, hold those who distort it professionally accountable.

  • ZXNova

     Just suck up your pride and just tell us all we need to know. Don’t let your nationalistic patriotism get in the way of your judgement. Just tell us all the info and don’t hide any. That’s all we want.

  • Hjguk

    Really Larry, “People are still reluctant to admit the atrocities that were perpetrated on Africans and Native Americans.”  It’s practically all i hear about.  But, i do live in Hawaii so there is a lot of anti U.S. feelings here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    While the article was great and I learned quite a few things (especially about ‘comfort women’ ( had never known that that kind of slavery was so recent and on such a grand scale)) the pictures from the ‘Last Samurai” really made me laugh. It’s a rather silly movie.

  • HorrorChan

    Reminds me of what happened in Texas a year or two over history books. : I think they were trying to change something about the Alamo and the war between Mexico and the U.S.

  • http://yakisushi.wordpress.com/ Yippy

    No, in my opinion, it is never proper to gloss over or whitewash history. It insults the memory of those who suffered (and the dignity of their descendants) while deluding the descendants of the perpetrators of the crime.

    But, as they say, history can be interpreted in so many ways. I think a textbook that lists all concrete facts available and then presents views from both sides on controversial incidents would be the best solution.

    And no, it’s definitely not an issue confined to Japan. Even though Malaysia does not have a history of imperialism or colonialism, our history textbooks are frequently skewed in favour of certain political parties. Infamous (aka ‘too sensitive’) incidents like the May 13 1969 racial riots are not even noted or explained, which is a shame since the rifts from that incident will never be healed unless we acknowledge and discuss it.

  • Mescale

    I didn’t learn any history of my own country in my school, I learned about the History of Medicine (The four Humors and Robert Liston Surgeon Extraordinaire), the 
    Sumerians (Cuniform Baby), and Custer’s Last Stand(He loved an American Indian Lady).

  • Mescale

    Clip Clop did run away to join the Circus! Don’t believe the vast Historical evidence that shows the Naborian Equestrian Sequestration. Its all a conspiracy to re-write history by anti-monacled leftist revisionist!

  • Mescale

    Oh well you do know that slavery still exists? Its been re-branded as human trafficking so its more palatable but its still alive and kicking. 

    http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=11641&gclid=CIv7w6TE_K4CFcwTfAodMRiL0w#slaverytoday 

  • Superguest

    My problem is that when people talk about the japanese history it’s always about ww2. ofcourse some japanese people were cruel  in that time and it shouldn’t be forgoten  but japan has way more history then that. Imho japanese actually has one of the less cruel historys in general. 

    Also have fun reading my bad grammar. 

  • Paladin341

     I was thinking the same thing when Viet asked if this happened elsewhere as well.  Since most textbooks are produced in Texas, there is some “Texan” influence on it, especially political books.  Conservative views seem to be put on a higher pedestal than liberal views, and you can notice vice-versa with New York published books.

  • Chiisana_Hato

    I don’t know in what city it is located, but there is a museum in Japan that shows how people were punished over the centuries. The hot poker in the eye thing, etc. Nice.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Haha. Glad you liked the pictures. It was fun to make them :)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/CYW7WYQ6R3WSMT7LWCORAM3G6I John

    “Truth” is subjective.  Just watch “Rashomon” to see Kurosawa’s take on the topic.

  • ಠ_ರೃ

     That’s not what I recall Rashomon being about!

  • Gmatt

    Nice, I quite believe you that there may be ignorance about the treatment of Native Americans, but your statement about “white written textbooks” is racist and offensive.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/CYW7WYQ6R3WSMT7LWCORAM3G6I John

    Not the primary theme of the film, but it’s in there.  From wiki, “[Kurosawa] intended it to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth” and later, “Due to its emphasis on the subjectivity of truth and the uncertainty of factual accuracy, [...]“

  • JL

    While Japanese textbooks indeed have been notorious among Asian countries due to advocating false historical facts, I personally found claims from other countries questionable as well. (China , Korea etc) 
    Trying to know perspectives from different interest groups is often the best method but also the most difficult one. 
    For instance, the Nanking massacre remains a highly controversial issue that no public figure in both China and Japan are willing to correct their own versions of the tragedy. 

  • Joe4TheRecord

    You really think U.S. school textbooks downplay atrocities (I’m totally
    reading into “questionable” and assuming that’s what you mean :)? From
    what I remember of my high school history textbook, it might as well have
    been titled “The awful things America has done that you should feel bad
    about”. We learned about the Wounded Knee massacre, smallpox blankets, trail of tears (and other forced resettlements); slavery and all the bad stuff that goes with that; racism, segregation, lynch mobs, and the civil rights movement; concentration camps for Japanese-Americans; dropping the atomic bombs and the horrible radioactive aftermath, Bikini Atoll; and I’m sure there are other atrocities we talked about that I can’t remember off the top of my head. In my opinion, the only way we could study more atrocities is if we had a dedicated class just for that. Which might not be a bad idea. I’m 100% for learning about all the bad stuff we’ve done since that’s the only way to not make those mistakes in the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lennartgoosens Lennart Goosens

    In the Netherlands, students nowadays get almost no education on their nation’s history. Everyone is always complaining about this fact, but I guess it has its advantages as well… XD

    (Especially since our ancestors plundered half of the planet and sold half its inhabitants as slaves… Oh, and we still call those times the “Golden Century”.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/lennartgoosens Lennart Goosens

    In the Netherlands, students nowadays get almost no education on their nation’s history. Everyone is always complaining about this fact, but I guess it has its advantages as well… XD

    (Especially since our ancestors plundered half of the planet and sold half its inhabitants as slaves… Oh, and we still call those times the “Golden Century”.)

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > They do that here too! When they talk about World War 2 They
    > always talk about Germany killing millions of people but not
    > about Japan doing the same to China, Korea, and the Philippines.

    It’s true that in American history courses, the focus in talking about WWII is consistently on the European theater.  There’s a valid reason for this, however:  Germany was a very real threat.  Japan invaded countries that were largely incapable of defending themselves:  Korea, China.  Germany invaded major world powers: France, England, Russia.  There’s a qualitative difference.  We do talk about Pearl Harbor, partly because it’s what got the US into the war, which was kind of a big deal, and partly because it left the US Pacific fleet with few traditional battleships and mostly aircraft carriers, which resulted in the whole world figuring out that aircraft carriers were actually more powerful than big-gun battleships.  We talk about Hiroshima, because the development of nuclear warfare is highly significant to the Cold War era that follows.  Other than that, however, Japan is essentially strategically unimportant to WWII.  We don’t talk much about Italy’s involvement either — not because Mussolini wasn’t a particularly nice guy, but because he wasn’t a real military threat to anyone outside his own immediate vicinity.

    What you won’t find in the US is students never hearing anything about any hostile or controversial actions the US might have taken.  Quite the reverse.  We talk *endlessly* about whether dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was the right choice.  We never *stop* talking about what the white man did to the Indians.  We talk about how Japanese Americans were mistreated during WWII.  We talk about how Theodore Roosevelt (an otherwise reasonably good President) basically stole Panama from Columbia.  We talk about how we basically manhandled Spain (in the Spanish American War) and Mexico (in the Mexican American War).  The list goes on.  History teachers actively go looking for controversial actions the US took that they can talk about.  It’s a major goal of the curriculum.  Students, it is felt, need to be disillusioned about this stuff.  Fair enough.

    Part of the difference might be simply a matter of age group.  US schools start covering some of this kind of thing in junior high, but a lot more of it gets hit in high school.  All students go to high school, so everyone has to take the classes that cover these things, but we don’t subject younger students to nearly as much of it.  If high school were made optional and a lot of students didn’t attend it, we’d be somewhat more open to criticism with regard to balance in our history curriculum.  (The one thing that does get covered thoroughly in elementary school is how the white man connived to steal all the land away from the Indians, repeatedly making agreements and then breaking them.  If anything the curriculum makes that sound much more deliberate and malicious than it actually was.)

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > Honestly, if Japan had formulated the A-bomb first, I
    > think we all know how that would’ve gone down. 

    It wouldn’t have made any difference.  What would they have done with it?  What *could* they have done with it?  Drop it on a handful of major American cities?  Only in their wildest fantasies.  Within six months after the US entered the war, Japan couldn’t get their carriers (or anything else) close enough to drop a bomb on Hawaii, much less California.  If Japan had developed the bomb first, they wouldn’t have been able to use it — at least, not in any meaningful way.  (I suppose they could have dropped it in Korea out of spite, or something, but that would’ve had zero impact on the outcome of the war.  If they’d had it early enough, they *might* have been able to drop it on some of the islands in the Pacific that were used for “island hopping”, but that would have been strategically inadvisable:  the US didn’t need those islands nearly as badly as Japan needed them, and dropping an a-bomb denies the area to both sides for a matter of some months.)  Japan couldn’t have used the bomb to change the outcome of the war — not without modern long-range bombers or ICBMs, neither of which were developed by either side until well after the war.

    We, on the other had, had demonstrated the ability to drop bombs on Tokyo more or less whenever we felt like it (weather permitting).  We’d dropped (conventional) bombs in the Kyoto area as well.  Bear that in mind, when you think about our decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Yes, there is real grounds for raising the ethical question of whether it was an acceptable action.  But we weren’t trying to do as much harm as we could manage.  We were trying to do as little harm as we thought necessary to bring the war to an end.  Whether the end justify the means is an important ethical question — indeed, I would say they do not.  Nonetheless, if Japan had had the bomb first, the outcome would have been exactly the same.

    The more interesting question is what might have happened if *Russia* had developed the bomb first.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > The U.S. is a good example. People are still reluctant to admit the
    > atrocities that were perpetrated on Africans and Native Americans.

    You should really visit the US some day.  You might find it’s somewhat different from how you imagined.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=719958059 Kelsey Claire Yates

    Wow, your school was really amazing!

    I think it varies from school to school, or more broadly, from region to region in the United States.  Because we have so many different textbooks utilized by teachers, there really is a huge range in the ways in which students are taught.  My school was middle of the road, I think, and I am pretty sure that being taught in a very southern state resulted in this sort of dismissive behavior towards the atrocities we committed against other races.  While it can be seen as a negative thing that Japan only has a small number of textbooks from which all of the citizens are taught, it would be easy to eliminate a faulty textbook from this system (if old, grumpy Japanese people would accept this suggestion.)  In the US, it would be harder to pinpoint all of the inaccurate/biased textbooks, but at the same time it once again bolsters our creative nature (considered our ‘strength’ in the education system) since we produce a huge variety of perspectives.  Although a few come away with an inaccurate view of history, they still have a different ideology to draw on, which could be a positive thing.  Anyway, I wish that we had that class you mentioned too!  It would be a humbling/nice character-building experience.

  • Joe4TheRecord

     I knew that textbooks varied a lot between schools but for some reason I never made the leap of logic to students actually learning vastly different things.  Good points!

  • Niji Hirasawa

    Lol it’s the same font type as Poptropica! :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    oh yeah I’m definitely aware of the human trafficking that goes on nowadays, but as far as I know, it isn’t government or military funded and condoned

  • Mescale

    Oh good that makes it alright then.

  • Petzl

    The first thing I thought of when I read about this was what has happened in the United States: specifically, the 2010 Texas school board’s own attempt at historical revisionism.  Don McLeroy, dentist, republican, and president of the Texas state school board, decided that phrases like “slave trade” should be changed to “trans-Atlantic triangle trade,” that McCarthyism really wasn’t all that bad. Thomas Jefferson was excised from texts because conservatives don’t like that he coined the term “separation of church and state.” If American conservatives think that Japanese revisionism is misguided, it would be interesting to see them examine what McLeroy did.

  • ChesterBogus

    ” but [I feel that] your statement about “white written textbooks” is racist and offensive. ”

    I wanted to write some kind of polite rebuttal to this, but I just can’t. You’re obviously clueless, and no one gives a damn if facts hurt your feelings. “Racist and offensive.” What an utterly stupid thing to say, especially in the context of the above article.

  • http://twitter.com/patrickinjapan patrick mcpike
  • Andrew McCrsh

    I Was Raised In Amerika To Believe Things About U.S. History That I Now Reconsider As An Adult.Like Was It REALLY A “Holocaust” or Was it Starvation?, DID The GERMANS do It To The Jews,OR Did THE ALLIES Do It ToThe GERMANS??…Pearl Harbor Happened Because of A U.S./English/’Dutch(East Indies,Borneo)’ Economic OIL EMBARGO Against Japan While Japan Was In A Life-And-Death Struggle With China;- & Japan NEEDED Oil To Fight,………….Et Cetera!……….T/U!………….Along W/ Other Historical FACTS You’ve ALREADY Mentioned!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.rawley Jeremy Rawley

    There is no way anyone deliberately infected the natives with smallpox blankets. Germ theory wasn’t known back then. They wouldn’t have known how to do so.

  • Joe4TheRecord
  • Karenator

    I see in your last sentences here your disclaimer to lesson outrage from those people that would cringe at an American daring to point out that another country just might be a tad, tad less than perfect. I think that your disclaimer was not only appropriate but necessary. However, when anyone criticizes anything-American (including Americans), typically those doling out the criticism want their readers to believe they are talking about an American anomaly. It comes from a place of anger, insularism, and believe it or not — nationalism. Is this an imbalance that only I recognize? It takes open eyes and lots of reading to discover this. At the same rate, since the US has become politically correct, there aren’t many Americans who talk about any country’s governments in any other tone but a highly positive one coming from a romantic place of naivete. Truth is, no government is anyone’s friend. No government is on the side of the people. None. This is all stemming from the gradual change in America’s education as can be found in “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America”.

    Anyway, I don’t believe that there is one nation that doesn’t hide their true history. You have to ask yourself why this happens to begin with. That is the only way to get half way closer to the truth. The larger conspiracy…. well, nobody would believe that. :-) We all need to find that one out for ourselves attained by digger deeper and asking questions.

  • Karenator

    I realize you’re Japanese by the way. But what I had written still applies to those who don’t think that there is a world outside their country and America. We need to realize that there are 196 countries out there.

  • Bob

    How does “I didn’t know” become “it’s alright,” in your mind?

  • Mescale

    How does “oh yeah I’m definitely aware” become “I didn’t know” in your mind?