The Japanese Textbook that Gets American History Wrong

Fact & Fiction

Editor's Note: Recently, Koreans and Chinese have protested the misrepresentation of history in Japanese textbooks. In particular, scholars have objected that the textbooks ignore the Rape of Nanking and the enslavement of thousands of Korean women as sex slaves during the 1930s. Now, it is Americans' turn to take umbrage. The authors of a Japanese textbook have used a phony document to mischaracterize the famous expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry. On July 10 Japanese scholars released the following statement to protest the textbook's misuse of history.

On 20 June 2001, in a press interview in Tokyo, the Historical Science Society of Japan and twenty other historical associations of Japan jointly expressed serious concern about the presentation of Japanese history in one of the newly prepared Japanese history textbooks, namely, the Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho (The New History Textbook), edited by Kanji Nishio and others (Husosha Publishers). The textbook, which is intended for use in teaching junior high school students, includes some apparently intentionally distorted accounts of Japanese history as well as numerous careless mistakes. (See, Ashahi Shimbun 21 June 2001, in Japanese)

One of the most purposefully distorted accounts involves the diplomatic negotiation between Japan and the United States of America in A.D. 1853, when Mathew. C. Perry, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Naval Forces in the East India, China, and Japan Seas, reached Uraga, a small town on the Tokyo Bay, so as to deliver the official letter from the President of the United States of America which proposed that"the United States and Japan should live in freindship and have commercial intercourse with each other." Regarding these diplomatc negotiations, the Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho includes the following passage [our translation]:

The Japanese government (Shogunate) could not reject the official letter of the President of the United States of America. The reason is that, in addition to the President's letter, Perry handed to the Japanese government two white flags, with a letter of his own stating:"You had better be prepared to defend youself with arms, as we are ready to attack you in case you reject to open your doors to us, and victory will surely be ours. We are, however, willing to make peace with you, if you raise the white flag indicating surrender" [translation from Japanese]. Such a threatening diplomacy, forcing a country to accede to demands by use of armed force, is known as"gunboat diplomacy", an approach frequently resorted to by the Western powers in their dealing with Asian countries (p. 176).

The documentation to which this seeming quotation is attributed is questionable and unverified.

Perry wrote in his official report sent to J.C. Dobbin, the Secretary of the Navy of the United States, dated 30 July 1853 (preserved now in the National Archives of the United States) that he submitted to the"Prince of Izu, first Counsellor of the Emperor","the President's letter, my letter of credence and three communications from myself together with transcripts of the same in the English, Dutch and Chinese languages for which the Prince of Izu gave me a receipt"(Document No. 1). The alleged letter by Perry in question is not included in the three letters (communications) by Perry (Document No. 2). Further, no other letters written and handed to the Japanese government by Perry at this time are known to exist in the National Archives of the United States. The source which the Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho textbook cites for the above passage regarding the two white flags and Perry's threatening letter is a document in Japanese! cited in Source Document No. 119 of the Dai-Nihon Komonjyo, Vol. 1 [Official Records of Japan] (1910). This document is clearly tagged as of questionable authenticity by the compiler of the documents. Thus, there seems little room to doubt that the supposed letter by Perry upon which the Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho based its narrative of the diplomatic negotiation between the Japanese government (Shogunate) and Perry, is apocryphal. The alleged letter by Perry is deemed to be based on nothing more than a rumor that spread among the Japanese people at that time and was probably written down later by a Japanese official (Document No. 3).

We thus express grave concern about circumstances in this country that allow the writing of Japanese history based on such problematic documents with regard to Japan's diplomatic relationship with another country, believing that such writing is sure to adversely affect mutual understanding and freindship between the two countries.

Masato Miyachi, Tokyo University
Masanori Nakamura, Kanagawa University
Hiroyuki Kotani, President of the Hstorical Science Society of Japan.

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