Mikyoung Kim: Why Japan is still struggling to tell its history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mikyoung Kim is Assistant Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute – Hiroshima City University. Before assuming her current position in 2005, she taught at Portland State University as Fulbright Visiting Professor. She previously served with the U.S. State Department from 2000 to 2004, specializing in U.S.-ROK-DPRK relations. Her forthcoming book, Securitization of Human Rights: North Korean Refugees in East Asia, will be published by Praeger in 2009.]

... Post-Cold War Japanese history education emphasizes two main goals: 1) understanding national history in the context of the global historical trajectory; and 2) educating citizens as members of the international community.[8] The empirical realities have not been in sync with the educational goals: history education, instead, has been the target of domestic ideological contention and international criticisms.

Political bifurcation over history textbooks is nothing new in Japan. The ideological pendulum has been in constant flux between right and left throughout the postwar era. Textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education after the beginning of the screening system in 1947, for instance, were liberal enough to contain narratives on the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. Such critical self-historicism under SCAP (Supreme Command for the Allied Powers) provoked the conservatives who deemed Japan’s aggressive wars Japan’s only viable option to secure its own survival in the face of Western colonialism. With the pendulum swinging to the right, the Liberal Democratic Party’s 1955 proposal to augment the screening authority of the Ministry of Education ignited the first history textbook controversies. Textbooks up for approval that year were criticized for such subversive actions as describing the bleak living conditions of the working class and presenting rosy depictions of the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.[9] With the “Red Purge” underway, the Ministry rejected more than 80 percent of the textbooks, citing “factual distortions.”[10] Tightening of the screening process continued for the following quarter century.[11]

The pendulum swung back toward the progressive camp during the second major round of history textbook controversies in 1982. It started with a Chinese newspaper’s allegation that the Ministry of Education pressured textbook publishers to replace “aggression [towards China]” with “advancement [into China],” and to replace “independence movement [in Korea]” with “riots [by the Koreans].” This allegation, which turned out to be false, was picked up by the Korean and Japanese news media, fueling the “history” debates. With more and more media outlets copying and embellishing each other’s accounts, history emerged as an important diplomatic issue. The Suzuki cabinet proceeded to make accommodative gestures by enacting the “Neighboring Country Clause,” as noted above.

Why did Japan move to placate its neighbors in spite of the factual inaccuracies and exaggerations of the media claims? I argue that it was a reflection of changing perceptual milieu: Japan was rediscovering Asia. Japan had made a conscious decision to distance itself from Asia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Very influential opinion leaders such Fukuzawa Yukichi were at the forefront of advocating Japan’s de-Asianization policy.[12] In order for Japan to catch up with the advanced West, they argued, it had to shed its backward and feudalistic Asian identity. Asia lapsed into perceptual oblivion, as it were, until the 1982 textbook controversies, coming at a time when both Korean and Chinese economies were rapidly developing, drove the situation home. With Asia re-emerging on the Japanese mind map in the 1980s, more complex and conflictual perceptions of the war emerged.

The international criticisms of Japanese history textbooks were a wake-up call for the Tokyo government. Japan began paying attention to its former “victims” as a legitimate concern for diplomatic relations. From the 1982 controversies through the 1990s, the Japanese government extended an unprecedented number of apologies to China and Korea.[13] Prime Minister Suzuki (August 24, 1982) and Chief Cabinet Secretary Miyazawa (August 26, 1982) made specific reference to the textbook issues in their apologies.[14, 15] As the “comfort women” issues emerged as a source of political and diplomatic contention in the early 1990s, more apologies were extended to China and Korea. Prime Minister Miyazawa (January 17, 1992), Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato (July 6, 1992), Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono (August 4, 1993), Prime Minister Murayama (August 31, 1994; July 1995), and Prime Minister Hashimoto (June 23, 1996; July 15, 1998) apologized for the pain and suffering endured by women.[16, 17, 18, 19] Many other apologies on the war in general were made by a range of political leaders and even the Emperor.

Repeated apologies failed to convince the Chinese and Korean governments and people of their sincerity. Regret and apology are two different things. Regret is a sentiment accompanying the realization of wrongdoing; apology, the communicative format through which regret is conveyed. Even today, China and Korea, remain keenly aware of the separate realms occupied by sentiment and ritual, and of the telltale signs of inauthentic performance. Theories of Japanese dual consciousness (tatemae-honne) fuel suspicion of performance-only insincerity in the apology rituals.[20] Repeated insults and denials by Japanese politicians confirm suspicions of Japanese indifference and intensify demands for authentic remorse.[21] A deep perceptual dilemma between Japan and its former victims fuels the “memory problem.”

With the pendulum swinging to the left, the 1994 textbooks contained mention of Japanese wartime atrocities including the comfort women, Unit 731 and the Nanjing Massacre.[22] The conciliatory stance provoked hostile reactions from Japanese rightists for being “masochistic” and “biased.” This round of clashes led to the 1996 formation of “Tsukurukai,” which consists of conservative diet members and academics critical of the new textbooks.[23] Tsukurukai authored and published many books which reached the general public. The Research Association of Liberal Historical Perspectives (Jiyushugi Shikan Kenkyukai) was another advocate of conservative views which engaged in active public outreach programs such as publishing the three-volume Manga History of Japan: What the School Textbooks Do Not Teach (Manga: Kyokasho ga Oshienai Rekishi).[24]

The saga continues in the twenty-first century. Following Education Ministry’s approval of the New Japanese History (Atarashii Rekishi Kyoukasho) authored by Tsukurukai in April 2001, China and Korea demanded revisions of the text, but to no avail. China Radio International, as an example, reported on the Beijing government and the Chinese people’s strong dissatisfaction with the new Japanese history textbook.[25] The controversies continued the following year when a Chinese newspaper report linked Japanese corporations to Tsukurukai. Chinese consumers launched boycotts of the companies linked to Tsukurukai. Amid the mass protests led primarily by the youth, Asahi Breweries became the first target of boycott. The 2005 clashes were, again, the result of Chinese and Korean protests against the New Japanese History (Atarashii Rekishi Kyoukasho), which was accused of downplaying the nature of Japan’s militarism including its past aggression and the circumstances of World War II.

The Japan Teachers Union denounced the book published by Fusosha, and only 18 out of 11,102 junior high schools adopted the book, taking up only about 0.04 percent of the total market share. Despite Beijing and Seoul’s persistent protests, the market share of “problematic” texts has been consistently dismal.[26]

The Japanese history textbook controversies reveal two persistent patterns. First, Japan’s domestic political divide has fueled the memory debates. A sequence of attacks and counterattacks has led to no meaningful synthesis. The latest episode comes from the Okinawa. Hundreds of thousands of Okinawans, with the support of the prefectural government, protested Ministry of Education instructions in June 2007 to retract descriptions of the Battle of Okinawa. The Japanese military was known to have forced residents to commit mass suicides during the battle. The Tomigusuku Municipal Assembly in Okinawa stated that the 2007 instructions were to “deny the historical facts, accumulated through studies of the Battle of Okinawa that are based on the numerous testimonies of those who experienced it.”[27] Japan as a country is still grappling over what really happened during the war, in particular the nature of and responsibility for war atrocities.

A second pattern is many of the international controversies began with erroneous or misleading allegations and misunderstandings. Contrary to the widespread belief in the region, the Japanese Ministry of Education does not directly intervene in textbook writing although it does conduct textbook screening. Moreover, with the availability of commercialized textbooks, the process of textbook selection is decentralized with local boards of education enjoying substantial autonomy in the selection of textbooks from among those approved by the Ministry of Education. In 47 prefectures, some 500 Textbook Screening Committees are formed every four years under the auspices of local boards of education. A committee usually consists of about 20 school principals, teachers, experts and ordinary citizens who provide advice and consultations to the board of education. After holding public textbook exhibitions and internal discussions, the committee selects the textbook to be adopted for the school district.[28] An analysis of thirty-three junior high school history textbooks (1950-2000) shows very little narrative change over time.[29]

Compared to Japan, the Chinese and Korean systems of textbook writing, screening and marketing are far less decentralized. The Ministry of Education in Korea exercises almost sole supervisory authority.[30] Since the 1980s the Chinese system has allowed private companies and individuals to author texts, which are then subject to stringent screening process.[31]....

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