The Japan Times reported last week that Tokyo has decided to use a controversial new history textbook criticized for whitewashing Japanese atrocities in Asia during World War II:
The Tokyo Metropolitan board of education adopted two contentious social studies textbooks Thursday that critics say distort history and gloss over Japan's wartime atrocities.I've already written several posts about these textbooks (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), arguing that while their treatment of Japan's conduct during World War II may be superficial and sanitized, China's criticism of them reeks of hypocrisy.
The capital is the second city this year, after Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, to choose junior high textbooks one for history and one for civics compiled by members of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and published by Fuso Publishing Inc.
...Critics say the history text plays down the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and ignores the sexual enslavement of women by Japanese soldiers. They also say it depicts Japanese wartime actions as aimed at liberating other parts of Asia.
However, it appears the real harm these books may cause lies not in their portrayal of any particular historical event, but in their overall approach to the teaching of history and, indeed, in the philosophy of education that they represent.
The following English translation (pdf file here) of an excerpt from the new history textbook is from the website of the strongly nationalist Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which created it:
The history you are about to study is the history of Japan. In other words, you will be familiarizing yourselves with the stories of your ancestors your blood relatives. Your closest ancestors are your parents, who were preceded by your four grandparents. As you go back further in time, the number of ancestors increases with each generation. Then you realize that the humans who populated the Japanese Archipelago are ancestors you share with the other students in your classroom. In every era, Japanese history was made by ancestors common to all of us.It's often said that the benefit of a liberal arts education is that it teaches you how to think. But as the excerpt above demonstrates, Japan's nationalists don't seem to want to teach schoolchildren how to think. They want to tell them what to think. Statements like "In the modern era, the U.S. and Western European nations threatened to engulf East Asia. But Japan sought harmony with Western civilization" don't encourage students to study the facts and reach their own conclusions. In fact, they don't even suggest that there might be other conclusions.
...Every nation in the world has a unique history; Japan is no exception. From time immemorial, our land has been the wellspring of civilization and unique traditions. In ancient times, the Japanese studied and appreciated the civilization that arose in China, but they never lost sight of their own traditions. Over the centuries, they built an independent nation. To see our ancestors' accomplishments, you need only visit important cultural and historical sites.
In the modern era, the U.S. and Western European nations threatened to engulf East Asia. But Japan sought harmony with Western civilization a harmony that could be achieved while retaining Japanese traditions. As Japan transformed itself into a modern nation, it made every effort to maintain independence. But those were difficult times, and tension and friction arose between Japan and other nations. We must be grateful to our ancestors for their unceasing efforts, which made Japan a wealthy and safe nation (the safest in the world, in fact).
And statments like "Japanese history was made by ancestors common to all of us" not only tell students what to think, they ignore the fact that there are students in Japanese schools whose parents or grandparents immigrated from Korea, China, or elsewhere. What are they to make of this emphasis on a common Japanese ancestry?
Even more disturbing is that this focus on common ancestors echoes militarist prewar Japan's emphasis on racial unity. It also calls to mind the widely-discredited nihonjinron ideology of the postwar era, which portayed Japanese as different from (and, frequently, superior to) all other peoples of the world, by virtue of their race, language, and culture. Most nations have tossed theories of racial and cultural exceptionalism on the ash heap of history, but Japan has put them in its schoolbooks.
I've been quick to criticize China's aggressive new nationalism, particularly in the context of that country's dealings with Japan. But Japanese nationalism presents problems of its own.
White Peril points out that teachers in Japan tend to be leftists, not nationalists, and they have ample opportunity to shape and color the presentation of any textbook material in the classroom.