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Monday, Oct. 29, 2001


No easy answer to textbook controversy

NEW YORK -- Many of those who have followed recent history textbook controversies will be surprised to learn, just as I was, that postwar Japan did not have a textbook dedicated to history until 1955, 10 years after the country's defeat.

Yes, I am old enough to remember my father expressing dismay at older textbooks with passages and sentences blotted out in black ink. That was an emergency step the Occupation took to erase descriptions deemed undesirable. Those textbooks remained in circulation for at least a year and a half, until 1947, when the government, with the Occupation's guidance, issued the first set of postwar textbooks. But none of the multiple volumes covering civics was devoted to history. Even after the peace treaty was signed in San Francisco, it took the Japanese government something like three years to put together a history book.

The immediate question might be: Was the eight-year blank a loss? Personally, the answer is no. In 1955 I was in my second year of junior high school, but from either that year or the next I don't remember anything like a history class, though I have vivid recollections of English, physics, mathematics and other classes. About the greatest event in Japan's immediate past, the war, I learned mostly from boys' magazines. I can still recall the name of one artist, Shigeru Komatsuzaki, because he did a series of spectacular pictures of warships and warplanes that Japan once possessed.

From the viewpoint of controversy, in any case, the 1955 history textbook for junior high school, which was issued in the name of the philosopher and educator Yoshishige Abe, carried, I gather, some problematic descriptions. A brief passage on early relations between the Korean Peninsula and Japanese islands, for example, would surely prompt today's Korean government to protest.

In the next 10 years, matters became contentious enough for historian Saburo Ienaga to bring, in 1965, the first of his three lawsuits against the government for rejecting his textbooks in the certification process. A proud user of the term "the 15-Year War," which some conservatives regard as unacceptable, Ienaga argued that Japan was an aggressor-nation, period. Ienaga's textbooks were for high school, however, which is not part of compulsory education.

In 1975, a history textbook for junior high school described the Nanjing incident for the first time. "Because there were (Chinese) people in civilian dress who shot at them," it said, "during this time the Japanese military killed a total of 42,000 residents, including women and children. There were a number of similar, though smaller-scale, incidents."

The introduction of this subject may have been prompted by a series of accounts of the massacre that Katsuichi Honda published in the Asahi Shimbun in the early 1970s. Not that Japanese historians had ignored or covered up the mass killings. In the 26-volume "History of Japan" issued in the 1960s, Shigeru Hayashi, writing the volume on the Pacific War, cited the same estimate of 42,000 people killed, adding that the Japanese army is thought to have killed 300,000 in the months before it took Nanjing, as it moved from Shanghai to Nanjing.

The appearance of such a description in a textbook meant that the state recognized the incident as fact. You can imagine how that agitated those nationalists who insisted no such thing happened.

More disquieting for them, the scale of the killings would later expand, at least in some textbooks. The one published by Tokyo Shoseki, in 1985, said: "The number of those killed was 70,000 to 80,000 when only the ordinary citizens, including women and children, were counted. It is said to reach as high as 200,000 when the soldiers who had thrown away their weapons were included." In the latest edition of its textbook, Shimizu Shoin says, "As for the number of casualties, the estimate ranges from several tens of thousands, to 160,000, to more than 300,000."

In December 1991, three South Koreans, saying they were formerly "comfort women," sued the Japanese government. In March 1993, South Korea asked Japan to include a description of "comfort women" in textbooks. Although the Japanese government professes to have no such "authority," all but one of the 14 history textbooks for high school certified in June 1994 had descriptions of "comfort women." As for the textbooks for junior high school, all the seven certified in June 1996 did. The fracas over one textbook certified for 2002 is too fresh to require recounting.

In view of the furor and anguish created each time these matters are brought up, the argument that history should be placed outside compulsory education or a state's supervision is worth noting.

In a brief 1997 essay taking up the controversy that year, Inuhiko Yomota recalls how he learned about "comfort women": not from a textbook, but from movies such as Senkichi Taniguchi's 1950 "Akatsuki no Dasso" ("Escape at Daybreak") and Seijun Suzuki's 1965 "Shunpu-den" ("Hooker's Story"). Both films are based on Taijiro Tamura's 1948 novel about a doomed love affair between a Korean "comfort woman" and a Japanese soldier.

A child forms his view of history through "his own curiosity, movies and comic books," says Yomota, a student of film and semiotics. Debate on whether "comfort women" should be included in a textbook, as liberals insist, or shouldn't, as conservatives argue, is irrelevant: It is based on the false premise that either will determine what Japan is all about. Yomota would, in any case, abolish the certification system.

Masakazu Yamazaki would abolish the teaching of "a state's history" in elementary and middle school. In a 1999 tract titled "Historical Fact and Political Justice," the playwright and social critic points out that historical facts are contested, on both recognition and evaluation levels, not only among nations but also among individual scholars. And "in a country like Japan where the mass media is highly developed, such multifarious interpretations are equitably conveyed to its citizens, and education of historical facts is carried out freely and voluminously outside school."

In the circumstances, "for the state to select one of the many interpretations and teach it institutionally is to be insincere from the scholarly viewpoint; it is also a wasteful expenditure from the budgetary viewpoint," Yamazaki concludes.

Should history be dropped from the school curriculum? That's a tempting proposition but probably impractical. Were that to happen in these contentious times, the Chinese and Korean governments would waste no time accusing the Japanese government of committing an even more heinous coverup. At the same time, it would create among the Japanese the sense that their government buckled under pressure and would surely harden the stance of conservatives who believe that Japan has a "proud" heritage to teach its young.

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