Japanese Textbook Controversy

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  • Topic: Nanking Massacre, Japanese war crimes, Japanese history textbook controversies
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  • Published : April 25, 2011
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The 1947 Japanese School Education Law decrees that the Ministry of Education must examine and approve all textbooks published in Japan[1]. This textbook-screening procedure has strained Japanese relations with neighboring countries. At its core, the ‘textbook controversy’ is a conflict of ideology between patriotic Japanese nationalists and left-leaning academics. Despite Chinese endeavors to employ their own textbook-screening procedure, Japanese censoring of history has, nonetheless, sparked friction between the two countries.

The textbook controversy, prominent since 1963, induced debate when Ienaga Saburo sued the Ministry of Education on the grounds that the authorization system violated his constitutional freedom of expression, as well as children’s right to education[2]. Throughout his lawsuit, Ienaga encouraged the events surrounding Asia in the Second World War, believing it was crucial to the understanding of Japanese history. As he argues, “most Japanese citizens were not informed the truth of the war… [So] enthusiastically supported the reckless war,” his statement still holds true today. The notion that many Japanese students are uninformed of their nation’s history is alarming. By not educating students on the past, history eventually is forgotten. If forgotten, history is doomed to repeat itself. The Chinese newspaper, Renmin Ribao, expresses this fear, as documented in 1983, “Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide to the future”.[3]

Japan’s textbook controversy revolves around two underlying schools of thought. As expressed by David McNeill, journalist and teacher in Japan, the first intellectual school is Maboroshi-ha (Illusion School), rejecting Japan’s past despite all evidence and testimonies of war victims.[4] Arguing that the causalities incurred in the Nanjing Massacre were a very small number, and often claiming the Nanjing Massacre was a Chinese fabrication, the school consists of influential right wing elites. The second school, Daigyakusatsu (Massacre School), agrees with China’s claim of Japan’s wartime atrocities[5]. Composing of left-leaning historians and teachers, they are conferred no power to influence textbooks. The conflicting ideologies the two schools demonstrate shows how the textbook controversy originates from a patriotic minority, the Maboroshi-ha, who are singularly able to dictate the content taught in Japanese schoolchildren.

In a comparative study conducted by Weilu Tan, two Japanese history textbooks, both issued in 2005, contain statements regarding the Sino-Japanese War. The first textbook, New History Textbook, was formed through the ‘Society Of The New History Textbook Reform’(. Selling only 0.4% market share, it describes the Sino-Japanese War:

“On the night of July 7, 1937, a shot was fired against a Japanese army unit that was on exercise at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing. This resulted in a military engagement with the Chinese army the following day”.

The second textbook, the Middle School History textbook, selling 14.9% market share, describes the same incident:

“In July 1937, Japanese and Chinese forces clashed outside of Beijing in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, triggering the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War”[6].

In comparison with the two texts, the New History Textbook provides an extended version of the Sino-Japanese War. The paragraph mentions a shot being fired against the Japanese army, where it then suggests Chinese violence triggered the war. Middle School History, however, minimally outlines the Sino-Japanese War, with no mention of any shot being fired. Nevertheless, both textbooks imply a Chinese “clash” triggered the war, which is inaccurate. Although both textbooks do not give a coherent summary of the transpired events in Beijing, the more comprehensive textbook is also the one that sells a lower percentage of market shares. This suggests that despite the Ministry’s allowance for a new...
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