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April 2005

In Japan’s New Texts, Lessons in Rising Nationalism


Published: April 17, 2005 in THE NEW YORK TIMES

TOKYO — In a region where history remains unresolved, the fight over the past is often a fight over the future. Seldom does it crystallize as perfectly as it did last week, in the biggest anti-Japan protests in China since the two countries re-established relations in 1972. Oddly, to Westerners at least, the focus of Chinese fury was Japan’s approval of junior high school history textbooks that critics say whitewash Japanese aggression in Asia.

This wasn’t the only textbook tempest, and it may not be the last. Not only are Chinese authorities bracing for further protests, but just before this week’s marches, Japan objected that China’s patriotic education breeds anti-Japanese sentiments, and South Korea castigated the Japanese textbooks for allegedly trying to justify a colonialist past.

Although it may yet be decades before the three countries agree on history, they have long shared a common trait that helps explain how revisions can stir such deep emotions. Their students learn history through government-approved textbooks that are, especially with nationalism rising in all three countries, useful tools in shaping national identities. Since the textbooks require the central government’s imprimatur, they are taken as a reflection of the views of the current leaders.

“In all three countries, there is a tendency to propagandize history,” said Jee Soo Gol, a professor of history education at Kongju National University in South Korea.

The extraordinary fury at Japan stems not just from its 20th-century atrocities, but from what its neighbors describe as its increasing attempts to evade past wrongdoing. And they have a point. A look at the new textbooks and those from two previous cycles, 2002 and 1997, shows an unmistakable backpedaling on some of the most contentious points.

The most glaring example surrounds the issue of “comfort women,” the euphemism for the women, mostly Asian, who were forced into sexual servitude by Japanese authorities during World War II. In 1997, all seven textbooks included passages about them, explaining, for instance, that Japan “took away young Korean and other women as comfort women to battlefields.” In 2002, the number fell to three out of eight; this time, only two out of eight acknowledge the comfort women, and none use that term.

During the war, Tokyo dealt with a severe labor shortage by forcing hundreds of thousands of Asians to work in Japan. In 1997, the textbook published by Tokyo Shoseki and now used by 52 percent of all junior high schools stated that “700,000 people were forcibly taken to Japan between 1939 and 1945” as laborers. The 2002 edition omits any number, and says, “In order to make up for a labor shortage, Japan and Germany forcibly brought in foreign people and made them work in mines and factories.” The newest edition cuts out “forcibly” and says only, “There were Koreans and Chinese who were brought to Japan and made to work against their will.”

Nobukatsu Fujioka, the founder of the nationalist Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, said that textbooks focusing on Japan’s alleged wartime wrongs were unhealthy for the country’s students.

“I established this association because I thought it was a serious problem that this masochistic education is making the youth lose their pride and confidence in their own country,” said Mr. Fujioka.

“The words ‘war comfort women’ disappeared from textbooks in the last 10 years,” he added. “It is a fruit of our movement that the false fact was expelled from textbooks.”

The changes are also in keeping with a strong rightward shift in Japan.

“There would be a problem if the textbooks state something that the government does not assert, or if they go beyond the bounds of what the government asserts,” Shinzo Abe, one of Japan’s most popular politicians, said recently. “It’s natural that the textbooks follow the government line.”

Given the scrutiny and Japan’s comparatively long record of democracy, the textbooks here are perhaps more balanced than others in the region. China’s textbooks, for instance, teach that Chinese resistance, not the United States, defeated Japan in the war; they say nothing of the postwar Great Leap Forward, in which some 30 million Chinese died because of Mao Zedong’s misguided agrarian policies.

In South Korea, which democratized in the late 1980’s, textbooks have improved, though certain taboos remain, such as any mention of Koreans who collaborated with Japanese colonizers.

Shin Ju Baek, an education expert at Seoul National University, said that descriptions of the colonial period used to focus only on Japanese exploitation and Korean resistance, ignoring the role of Japanese colonialism in Korea’s modernization.

“There is still an emphasis on exploitation,” Mr. Sin said. “But textbooks now include other issues, such as the consumer culture that developed during Japanese occupation. Our textbooks are getting better. But Japan is a problem – it’s going in the other direction.”

From: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/17/weekinreview/17onishi.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1113883351-nCv7x4qMI8sHbPIPmeEnjQ



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