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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Whitewashing history the Japanese bureaucrat way

POSTWAR HISTORY EDUCATION IN JAPAN AND THE GERMANYS: Guilty Lessons, by Julian Dierkes. Routledge, 2010, 240 pp. (hardcover)

Putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen coop is asking for trouble. In relying on Japan's Ministry of Education to implement education reforms during the Occupation (1945-52), U.S. authorities ensured that their good intentions would come to naught.

Despite efforts at decentralization and devolution of authority over textbook content, by 1958 the central government bureaucrats reasserted control over what was taught in Japan's schools.

In a book brimming with interesting findings and stimulating analysis, one of the most striking observations concerns the relative stability of history textbook content in post-World War II Japan. Rather than converging on global trends as seen in the Germanys, history education in Japan from 1950-2005 remained relatively unchanged. According to Dierkes, bureaucrats managed to insulate textbook content from contemporary debates and discourse.

How they did so, and the role of institutions in the policy regime, constitute a major contribution to our understanding of Japan in particular and policymaking in general.

Although comparisons between Japan and Germany are commonplace in the literature on war memory and reconciliation, this is the first comparative work on history education that includes the former East Germany. Dierkes notes that Japan and East Germany both had "highly centralized policymaking regimes that endowed state actors with the power to make decisions over teaching content."

In East Germany the focus was on a Marxist interpretation of history and emphasis on the anti-Nazi struggle of communists. In West Germany, where educational reform was a priority for the Allies, Dierkes notes the success of teachers in retaining control over history education, which he attributes to their reputation for professionalism and status as academics.

In addition, fragmentation among the Allies, and support for federalism and self-determination explain "the Allied failure to counteract the power of professional authority over education within the educational policymaking regime that was reinstitutionalized on the basis of the Weimar experience."

Another fascinating contrast between West Germany and Japan involves textbook authorship. In West Germany, from the 1960s on, "textbook authors tended to be academic scholars with professional appointments at universities. Not only is this a further indication of the close integration of research and teaching, but also provides a significant contrast to Japan where textbook authors were increasingly drawn from . . . pedagogy professors rather than historians."

Unlike the thematic approach to history embraced by the Germanys, bureaucrats in Japan have maintained a chronological, fact-based approach to history. This emphasis on dates and facts, in which causal connections are unexplored, has allowed the Ministry of Education to appear to embrace a neutral stance on the national narrative.

Although factual mistakes have been corrected and some new information added, Dierkes overall finds little change to this narrative and stresses institutionalized resistance to a thematic or analytical approach to history.

The bureaucrats successfully thwarted Occupation reforms giving local school boards more autonomy and reasserted control over content by requiring that textbooks strictly follow teaching guidelines the ministry imposed. The bureaucrats saw their role as defending the nation from the "subversive" Japan Teachers Union and its preference for Marxist historiography.

The nonanalytical approach to history is problematic in that students do not examine the causes of militarism or atrocities committed by the Imperial Armed Forces. Dierkes notes that instead, sections on the Asia Pacific War "emphasized the suffering of the Japanese population during wartime air raids, and particularly, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . . Motivations for warmongering were also left unexplored."

He further writes that the rampage in Nanjing was not mentioned until 1977 and "Not a single textbook identified anyone or any organizational unit as having been responsible for the massacre." Moreover, the texts mostly cite Japanese casualty figures: "The emphasis on Japanese victimhood was also quite visible in the selection of photographs in newer textbooks."

Exposing the sham of neutrality Dierkes asserts: "Nowhere did bureaucrats allow a discussion of responsibility for the war or for the ideological conditions that made militarism acceptable to the population."

In the 21st century, Dierkes expects Japan's wartime history to remain divisive at home and with China and Korea. The comfort women became part of this narrative in the mid-1990s, but have largely been excised from recent textbooks, perhaps reflecting publishers' inclination toward self-censorship in response to perceived preferences.

Although the conservatives recent war-justifying textbook commands a less than 1 percent market share, it has sparked considerable media attention and regional ire precisely because the government approved it.

The revision of the Fundamental Law on Education under prime minister Shinzo Abe (2006-07) aimed at promoting patriotism signals more explicit political meddling in the teaching of history.

Trying to unilaterally rewrite history, however, is not so easy as Abe learned in attempting to assert his agenda concerning the comfort women and the Battle of Okinawa.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asia Studies, Temple University, Japan

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