The Right-Wing Group Behind the Super Patriotic Japanese Textbook that Whitewashes History

Roundup: Talking About History

David McNeill, in the South China Morning Post (April 23, 2004):

The rain beat down last week on a forest of umbrellas filing through the modern, neon-lit streets of central Tokyo, but the message coming from inside the cavernous Kudan Kaikan Hall was an oddly old-fashioned one, reminiscent of 19th-century jingoism.

"Why are we teaching our children to hate Japan?" thundered one speaker."America, China and Britain don't teach their kids to hate their countries. We should be telling them that this is an amazing country and that they should love it with all their hearts."

Another said:"Compared with the colonial rule of the European countries and America, Japan's rule of Asia was humane. If we had not colonised Korea, America or Europe would have. We have nothing to be ashamed of."

This is the world of the Society for Textbook Reform, which organised the conference, where Japan was not the brutal aggressor in the second world war but the liberator, fighting to defend itself from the US and European powers, and free Asia from the yoke of white imperialism; where imperial troops were not guilty, as most historians suggest, of some of the worst war crimes of the 20th century, but the"normal excesses" of armies everywhere; where Japan's"masochistic" emphasis on atonement is leading to the"moral decline" of its young.

It's a message not restricted to the 1,200 mostly middle-aged men in the hall, the sort of group that might be called angry white males in the west. After eight years building a grassroots movement to radically change the teaching of history in schools, the society is aiming to go mainstream in high schools across Japan. And with friends in high places, many believe they have a good chance of success.

"We're confident we can change the teaching of history in schools here," says one of the society's leading intellectual lights, Nobukatsu Fujioka, a professor of education at the elite Tokyo University.

So, does this mean Japan should hide its war crimes?"Great Britain committed war crimes," he says."America, too. Regrettably, many nations commit war crimes. My concern is that Japanese children are taught to hate their country. They're taught that only Japan was wrong in the war. Don't all countries use history to instil pride in students? The aim of history teaching is to prepare people for citizenship. The facts of history are limitless. We can't teach them all, so we have to make choices."

Professor Fujioka's group, led by openly right-wing scholars, dropped off the media radar three years ago after it caused a storm of protest across Asia with its New History textbook. Approved for use by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the textbook was accused of whitewashing history.

The Japanese invasion of Asia was changed to"war in Asia and the Pacific" and the word"invaded" changed to"advanced".

References to Unit 731, a bio-warfare unit that author Daniel Barenblatt recently said may have been responsible for one million Chinese deaths, were dropped.

The infamous 1937 Nanking massacre, when some historians estimate rampaging imperial troops slaughtered up to 300,000 Chinese, was changed to the"Nanking incident" and the number of casualties removed, with the strong implication that China fabricated the episode.

References to" comfort women", or an estimated 200,000 sexual slaves from across Asia forced to service imperial troops, were dropped. The comfort women, said Professor Fujioka in a famous essay, were prostitutes:"There is no need to teach children these kinds of facts."

The 2001 campaign is widely believed abroad to have ended in failure after teachers and local activists blocked the use of the textbook in all but about 10 of Japan's 10,000 middle schools, but that's not how the society or its opponents view it.

New History has sold nearly 750,000 copies commercially since its release and its popularity has forced the makers of the seven other history textbooks in use to tone down their own accounts of Japan's wartime history. The society recently once again submitted its revised textbook to the Education Ministry for approval, and it believes this time around it's got it right."More and more people share our opposition to instilling self-hatred in our children," Professor Fujioka recently told author John Nathan."I am confident it won't be that long until New History sets the standard."

But why has this relatively tiny organisation, run by academics and volunteers out of a nondescript building in Tokyo, had such an impact on the history debate?

Yoshifumi Tawara, who runs Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21, a group opposed to the textbook, has an answer:"The society likes to see itself as being up against a liberal establishment that controls education in Japan, but much of the establishment backs what it is doing."

The establishment includes up to 100 lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who are sympathetic to the society's goals, the chairman of Japan's largest business federation, the Keidanren, and the mass circulation Sankei newspaper. Thousands of businesses have funded the society's activities, including the free distribution of more than 700,000 copies of a nationalist history book by society member Kanji Nishio to schools across the country. Pitted against this well-funded campaign is a loose network of teachers, trade unionists and campaigners like Mr Tawara.

But the society's campaign to revise Japan's troubled past for a source of national pride has also been fuelled by the rich vein of hypocrisy many in Japan see in the actions of its staunchest post- war ally, the US. Many of its key supporters, including best-selling manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, slam the refusal of the US to apologise for the 1945 fire bombing of Tokyo, which incinerated an estimated 100,000 Tokyo civilians, or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, incidents both he and Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara (who also supports the textbook movement) describe as"racist".

Parallels have been drawn among the textbook movement's supporters to the bombing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the society's emotional message has found an increasingly willing audience among the millions disillusioned with Japan's traditional subservience to Washington.

"America cannot criticise anyone," says 32-year-old graphic designer Chiyoko Fujimoto, who regularly reads Kobayashi's comics."They bomb and kill when they want. Why should we take all the criticism for what we did years ago?"

Mr Tawara also says there has been a sea change in the popular conscience since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's failed attempt to mend diplomatic relations with North Korea."The Japanese media has focused strongly on Japan as the victim of crimes by North Korea, particularly the kidnapping of its citizens, so the memories of what Japan did in Asia is fading. Many young people have little idea of what went on in the past."

This growing national amnesia, which the new textbook threatens to worsen, fuels growing anti-Japanese sentiment in China, which has watched Tokyo wriggle out of hundreds of war compensation claims."The whole trouble is that Japan has never faced up to the past the way Germany has," says Arthur Titherington, who fought and lost a compensation claim in the Tokyo courts and who is chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association of Britain.

"I think it's a great shame that Japan is prepared to let its children live in ignorance. They just don't know what they did."

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David Alexander McNeill - 5/23/2004

Thanks to Thomas Reimer for his comments on the piece I wrote.

I agree with most of them although not, of course, that we should cheer the revisionists on just because they are "getting others to think about their own legitimacy." We might be better supporting people on the left, including thousands of teachers, who also criticize Japan's past imperialist adventures without trying to use high school textbooks to push new adventures (the anti-Japanese and Korean tone of the revisionist textbooks is quite striking, as is the war-mongering rhetoric of those who support them).

As for the issue of becoming the pawns of China's "historical (and presumably domestic) politics," perhaps Japanese politicians (many of whom back the revisionist movement) could avoid handing Beijing a stick to beat Japan with by coming clean about its past.

I welcome suggestions about how to work the comparative illustrations Mr. Reimer cites into news articles and avoid demonizing one side. Quotes are one way but they tend to come late in the piece. The "newsy" aspect of the article -- in this case the revival of the historical revisionist movement in Japan -- has to come first, otherwise a newspaper won't publish it.

Thanks again for the comments.

Thomas Reimer - 4/30/2004

Who are we to cast stones? How many of our textbooks clearly and without whitewashing show to our kids how we got the land--through the holocaust of the Indians (to use Stannard's apt expression)--and later the violent imperialism of "Manifest Destiny" with its Mexican, Indian and Phillipine victims--not to mention the internal white imperialism against African Americans till 1965. He who is without sin shall cast the first stone. The constant pilloring of Japan and Germany for WW II allows other guilty murder societies to escape looking at their own sins, from Belgium to Russia and--US. So hooray for these old Japanese...not for whitewhashing their own sins but for getting the others to think about their own legitimacy.

US historians should also be wary of getting tricked into becoming pawns in the historical politics of Japan and China (which has its own unmentioned genocide of the Tibetans, and otherwise murdered over 50 million victims (Black Book of Communism).