Saturday, April 05, 2008

Revising (Distorting) Japanese History Textbooks

Charles Cummins , December 2001, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY (St. Louis)

Dating back to the 8th Century in Japan with the Kojiki and the Nihongi, historical compilations have been a controversial issue in Japanese society for their alleged distortions of history. Controversy existed not only in the way these texts alter public perceptions of history, but also in a larger question of how they affect the construction and identification of Japanese nationalism. This continuing debate regarding the portrayal of Japanese history has culminated in the current debate over Japanese textbooks, specifically, in their treatment of events leading up to World War II.
These include Japan’s presence in China in the 1930’s, the Nanjing Massacre, the use of biological warfare by Unit 731, and the role of “comfort women” in Japan’s military, all of which are disreputable acts.

One side in the debate argues for the exclusion from, or “watering down” of these incidents in Japanese history textbooks. The argument claims that the purpose of history is to bolster pride in and increase feelings of nationalism for one’s nation. The counter argument pushes for an objective treatment of history, and the inclusion of these events, therefore giving students greater freedom in the formation of deductions from the text, and avoiding the perception of a censored history.

Since the late 19th century, all Japanese textbooks have been subject to screening for approval of content, vocabulary, and expression by the Ministry of Education. The screenings were an attempt on behalf of the Ministry to represent Japan positively in history and increase Japanese nationalistic fervor. However, after the defeat of Japan in World War II and the ensuing American occupation, the distribution of textbooks was liberalized. No longer were historical facts purposely excluded from texts, giving students a broader, less subjective, vision of history.

Yet, Japanese administrative officials continued with textbook inspections in order to maintain Japan’s high educational standard.This period of liberalization in Japan halted during the Cold War, when democratic reform and disarmament were halted in favor of remilitarization so that America could have a strategic ally in the Far East.As conservative forces, specifically the LDP, reasserted their influence over government policy, texts were recompiled with the exclusion of events deemed detrimental to the Japanese national identity. However, as a result of the conclusion of the Cold War, Japan was faced with an ambiguous national and international identity because of the Americanization of its history, which asserted that Axis powers were “wrong” in World War II, and the Allied powers were “right.”

Henceforth, Japan sought to reinvigorate nationalism among the youth by reassessing the events of World War II, so as to create a sense of moral behavior on behalf of Japan.Thus, one returns to the debate as to whether Japanese history textbooks should be screened and molded so as to allow students to feel a sense of pride about Japan, or should be freely published allowing a less biased form of history to be propagated. This debate elucidates the manner in which Japanese texts create the narratives and identities of history that ultimately construct Japanese nationalism.

In order to understand the debate over the portrayal of history in textbooks, one must first be clear of the influence of education, textbooks, history, and politics over nationalism. Education functions as a method for the propagation and molding of the past, for it is “one of the most effective ways to promote a national narrative and to make and remake certain identities into the national identity. ”Bringing “official” interpretations of the past to the student, “textbooks typically function as nationalist primers that selectively highlight elements of the past to limn an ‘official’ story and etch the lineages and myths of contemporary patriotism.”

Textbooks have become a tangible manner for the creation of the “identities” and “narratives” that inspire nationalism. In their discussion on Japanese education and nationalism, Nozaki Yoshiko and Inokuchi Hiromitsu state history is composed of “narratives of ‘nation’ and a nation’s past are powerful tools that can involve people in a shared sense of identity, clarifying who ‘we’ are and where ‘we’ come from.”

History works as a unifying force amongst the masses to create nationalism. Finally, political forces have manipulated historical texts and created a “public perception that textbooks are authoritative statements of national policy and ideology.”Textbooks then play the role, according to political forces, of molding the behavior of the citizens into a “single, conformist mind-set.”Hence, the content of textbooks has become a central issue in the efforts of conservative Japanese to reinvigorate “ultra-nationalist” values.

Fujioka Nobukatsu champions the conservative, exclusionary side of the debate, claiming that representations of history should increase a citizen’s pride in the nation.
A member of the “Liberal View of History Study Group,” Fujioka promotes rightist, nationalist views disguised as“liberal” so as to influence students, teachers, and academics.Fujioka does not believe history should be subject to interpretation; instead history is “subject to the ultimate moral imperative of whether or not it serves to inculcate a sense of pride in being Japanese.” Fujioka believes that history makes no distinction between the truth and conjecture, thus necessitating a “censoring” in historical texts.

Slanderous, uncensored, textbooks simply have no worth, according to Fujioka, for they only serve to provide a “self tormenting historical perspective,” and does not allow Japanese children to foster a sense of nationalism because of a lack of pride in their own nation’s history.Critics, such as Aaron Gerow, suggest that Nobukatsu’s views are masochistic, for he enjoys “making oneself the victim of injustice so as to justify one’s own existence.Fujioka favors the denial of the truth over the inclusion of shameful facts because of the detrimental affect of the truth on the Japanese sense of nationalism.

While seeking specifically to eliminate all references to “comfort women” in history texts, Fujioka in a general sense seeks a complete reappraisal of Japanese history. The inclusion of “comfort women”, he argues, would cause a reevaluation of one’s relation to the state and a reexamination of gender relations within Japan. Yet, in order to understand the magnitude of this debate, one must consider the ramifications of exclusion of facts and alteration of historical texts.

These ramifications can best be understood in an international context. First, as many of these “comfort women” were Korean, deletion of their presence would serve to further “violate” an already “scarred” group. Further, Korean scholars claim this historical exclusion would indicate a return to the “emperor centered view of history,” in which one denies the existence of another, and the “colonialist view of history.”In this case Japan denies that Korea was civilized, legitimizing the “rape” of Korean women, and through the elimination of all wrongdoing, Japan asserts that its annexation of Korea contributed to Korea’s “autonomous modernization.” Exclusion of these facts would serve to sour relations between Japan and Korea.

Similarly, emperor centered and colonialist views of history in regard to the Japanese presence in China would negatively affect on relations between the two countries. Ignoring the slaughter of over 300,000 Chinese by Japan during the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and Unit 731’s experimentation with biological warfare products on Chinese subjects would deny the existence of China and the occurrences of these horrendous injustices.Fujioka contests that acknowledgement of these atrocities would in historical terms “render Japan weak.” In considering Fujioka’s argument, one must determine the justifiability of the alteration of historical texts and the transmission to students of a biased education as means of fortifying Japanese nationalism.

Historian Ienaga Saburo has pioneered the argument for the inclusion of Japanese historical transgressions in textbooks. Challenging the constitutionality of historical censorship in textbooks, Ienaga explained that the exclusion of certain events in texts was a “violation of the freedom of expression and scholarship and contrary to the Fundamental Law of Education,” for it was a “violation of the principle safeguarding education from no improper control.” Ienaga challenged the Ministry of Education on the characterization of issues ranging from the nature of Japan’s presence in China, including the Nanjing Massacre and the criminal behavior of Unit 731, to Japan’s colonization of Korea. Ienaga even attacked the characterizations of the imperial family in the Kojiki and Nihongi as illegitimate representations.Ienaga created his own history textbook, the Shin Nihonshi which was inclusive of all historical occurrences, thus reflecting his view “that education should be based on verifiable facts, and should convey democratic values and the desire for peace.”,In his efforts for the exposition of historical truths, Ienaga also revealed the “undemocratic nature” and the “abuses of power” ubiquitous in the text screening process.Although the argument for inclusion seems the more just cause, it is important to be aware of the ramifications in the revelation of previously undisclosed historical truths.

While the exclusion of historical facts would be harmful to Japan’s relations with many of its Asian neighbors, inclusion of these facts would put Japan in a subordinate role to in relation both China and Korea and arouse confusion among students unclear of Japan’s national identity.Inclusion of any of the atrocities committed by Japan would also counteract the untarnished, “historically privileged” identity Japan diligently seeks to expound.The concern is that inclusion of events such as the Nanjing Massacre or the acts of Unit 731 would sully this “privileged” historical nature, and lead to confusion in regard to the depiction of the national identity.Thus one returns to Fujioka’s belief that inclusion of shameful transgressions in Japanese history texts would negatively impact Japanese nationalism. An inclusive history would force Japanese students to conceive of Japan’s national identity in an international context, and would allow for an understanding of Japan’s interrelationships with its Asian neighbors.

The debate regarding either the inclusion or exclusion in historical textbooks of Japan’s pre-World War II criminal behavior is an element of the larger debate concerning the presence and typology of Japanese nationalism. It is apparent that nationalism is an unstable entity, easily manipulated by the dominant ruling power, and that textbooks serve as the dominant fashion in which to propagate this ever-changing sense of national identity. Historical exclusionists, such as Fujioka Nobukatsu, seek to create a history that will ultimately bolster Japanese feelings of nationalism. Yet, this approach isolates Japan from China, Korea, and even the world because of its attempt to deny the existence of the “other.” In contrast, those seeking an inclusive textual representation of history, such as Ienaga Saburo, not only want to convey the truth, but also believe students will be able to interpret the morality of Japanese actions. However, this type of presentation could cause “confusion” among students as they try to reinterpret Japan’s national and international identities, ultimately acting as a detriment to Japanese nationalism. Thus, in seeking resolution, one must determine the validity of a nationalism constructed on half-truths.


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Gerow, 31.

McCormack, 17

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Gerow, 34.

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Kazuhiko, 51.

Gerow, 31.

Yoshiko, 40.

Yoshiko, 41.

Yoshiko, 38

Yoshiko, 42.

McCormack, 22.


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