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.
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.