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Monday, Sept. 24, 2001


Conflicting views of Japanese history

A friend in Tokyo, Akira Ueda, has sent me the junior high school history textbook that has created so much furor, along with two books that compare all eight history textbooks that the Ministry of Education has certified for 2002.

Ueda told me that Fusosha, which published the textbook in question, defiantly titled "Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho" ("The New History Textbook"), or the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which prepared it, took the unusual step of selling it commercially (and that it has become a bestseller). The tacit rule appears to be that textbooks are not made commercially available, at least before a certain date. As a result, my friend couldn't get any of the seven other textbooks for me.

Fortunately, the two books comparing the eight textbooks include abundant quotations. Of the two, though, " 'Rekishi Komin' Zen-Kyokasho o Kensho suru" ("Examining All the 'History and Civics' Textbooks"), published by Shogakukan, begins to lose much of its credibility as soon as you start reading it. It is so heavily in favor of "The New History Textbook" that it barely achieves any comparative fairness.

Little wonder. "Examining All" was prepared by the Kyokasho Kaizen Renraku Kaigi (The Textbook Improvement Coordination Council), which was established in April 2000 and obviously has views similar to those of the Society for History Textbook Reform. Shumon Miura, chairman of the council and editor of the book, formerly headed the Agency for Cultural Affairs. If the Society for History Textbook Reform's conservatism is combative, the Council's is cagey.

So, in relation to the Nanjing massacre, the book cites all the relevant passages from the eight textbooks only to suggest that no one should have taken up the matter.

"All the textbooks, except the one by Fusosha, are the same in describing the incident as a historical fact about which there is not a single doubt," goes the comment. "In fact, there are various views of this incident, ranging from the standpoint that holds there was no such incident to China's view that 300,000 died. The matter is still debated in academia.

"In the circumstances," continues the book, "common sense tells us to refrain from teaching about an incident like this . . . in a textbook for compulsory education. Or if such things must be taught, the minimum requirement should be to draw attention to the existence of various views, as Fusosha does."

Such is the stance of Miura's group. You can guess what it will say about "comfort women." In a single short paragraph, it takes to task two textbooks for bringing the matter up, and that is that.

In fact, as is made clear by the other book comparing the textbooks, "Dou Chigau no? Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho vs. Imamade no Kyokasho" ("How Different Are They? The New History Textbook vs. Existing Textbooks"), published by Natsume Shobo, the Fusosha textbook is the only one that fails to mention "comfort women." All seven others address the issue head on.

What the Miura group is really objecting to seems to be the "forcible seizure" ("kyosei renko") or "enslavement" part of the issue, not the existence of "comfort women" themselves. The chronological listing of "postwar incidents surrounding textbooks" at the end of the book suggests that. The group may also be implying that, absent some proof of forcible acts, "comfort women" were part of the publicly accepted prostitution of the time, so don't make a fuss about it.

However, to argue at this juncture that the issue is not worth raising because of some technicality is to defy political realities. As "How Different Are They?" points out, the question of "comfort women" is at the core of recent controversy. Furthermore, the Japanese government publicly acknowledged their existence and apologized for it. In the event, Fusosha's failure to mention it is "untenable."

In comparative fairness, "How Different Are They?" is fair to a fault in most historical descriptions. About the Nanjing incident, it faults "The New History Textbook" for mentioning it but not mentioning any of the disputed numbers of people killed. But it also faults the other textbooks for taking it as fact but not mentioning the fact that there are a range of opinions about it. (At least two do.)

It is also for fairness, one assumes, that "How Different Are They?" strikes a surprising note on the Tokyo Trial. For some time now, there has been a contentious divide in Japan's historiography, with each side putting forth a catchy, dismissive characterization of the other. To put it simply, one group condemns those who take "the Tokyo Trial view of Japanese history"; the other condemns those who "approve the Pacific War" as just another aspect of historical development, about which, therefore, there is no need for Japan to feel particularly "guilty." Obviously, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and Miura's Council are foremost in the former group.

Fully aware of this, "How Different Are They?" takes a jab at the Fusosha textbook for copping out at the last minute. As far as I can tell from the quoted passages, the Fusosha textbook is the only one that gives a full-bodied description of the Tokyo Trial. But after stating, "Today, there is a view that casts into doubt the legitimacy of this trial from the viewpoint of international law," it goes on to give an "opposing" view, by adding: "There is also an opinion that approves it as pointing to a new development in international law for world peace."

The question remains whether the alleged defects of the Fusosha textbook were worth the little fingers a group of young South Korean men chopped off their fingertips in protest and whether, as my friend Ueda wondered with dismay, the Japanese media should have played up to the brouhaha. After all, Fusosha is only one of the eight publishers involved, and the seven others seem to describe the Nanjing massacre and comfort women in a more or less acceptable way. I recognize the watchdog role of such protests, but the South Korean and Chinese governments' reactions may have been counterproductive.

This brings us to the question of whether history, which tends to be a politically loaded subject, should be taught as a part of compulsory education. The question is not outlandish, as I hope to explain in my next column.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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