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Indoctrination, not education

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.

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.
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.

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.

...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).
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

This textbook also doesn't seem to mention that this generation of Japanese adults are not having enough children. In the long run the only way Japan will be able substain its economy is by allowing in people whose ancestors haven't lived in Japan "from time immemorial," people from Korea and the Phillipines for instance.

And Japan has to make them welcome. Students who study these textbooks are likely to end up xenophobes instead. These textbooks aren't simply wrong, they're part of a stupid policy.

--Mike Perry, Seattle, Untangling Tolkien 


Posted by Mike Perry

Anonymous said...

Nationalistic history textbooks are a problem around the world. What's unique in Japan is the level of scrutiny they attract in the Western press and the degree to which they provoke neighbors' objections.

The intense scrutiny is salutary and every attempt should be made to extend that to history teaching elsewhere and to the nature, origins and results of right-wing nationalism in general.

It's also worth considering what students actually take away from their history lessons. Students absorb what they hear in class within the context of what they see around them, hear in the news media and what their parents and peers say.

This is why things like the "Pledge of Allegiance" and school-based flag-worship in the U.S. are counterproductive. For critical-thinking students, i.e. the people who are most likely to become opinion leaders, the takeaway there is that the educational system functions partly as a propaganda organ of the state.

In my case, I spent most of my college years rebelling against the idea that the U.S. was worthy of worship. Given my lack of discernment at the time, my response was to take the left-wing reactionary view that the U.S. was worthy only of condemnation, since what was being taught and chanted in schools was obviously false propaganda.

I suspect that Japanese may be less inclined to take this sort of lesson away from their rightist textbooks and other attempts at indoctrination. Yet there will be many who do respond by rejecting the state's fundamental goodness as the basis of their views.


Posted by bunkerbuster

Anonymous said...

Japan was forced to seek "harmony with Western civilization" at the point of an American gun. It wasn't until Japan was totally defeated in war and the Japanese home islands were occupied that Japan began to prize harmony with Western civilization.

Certainly Japan had little interest in "harmony" in the years between the Meiji restoration and the beginning of Imperial Japan's last war (1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, which some historians consider the real beginning of WWII). 

Posted by Steven Den Beste

Anonymous said...


Japanese nationalists would respond to you by saying that Japan minded its own business for hundreds of years until America forced it to start trading in 1853 by having Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" steam into Edo Bay.

Then, when Japan saw how the western nations were moving into Asia and setting up colonies, it felt it had to start grabbing some colonies of its own, (1) as a defensive buffer zone against the West, and (2) to be taken seriously by the West as a Great Power (a status to which, after it defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, Japan felt entitled.)

Hence, Manchuria. Apparently some Japanese of that era forsaw a future in which Japan would be one of a small group of "world powers" extending its influence through its colonies — colonies that would serve as signs of its might and status in the same way that rich businessmen might boast of their real estate holdings.

One of Japan's mistakes, however, was to start grabbing colonies just as the practice was going out of fashion, as it were. A common complaint heard among Japanese apologists for their nation's military adventurism is "Just as we (Japan) learned how to play the game, you (the West) changed the rules."

I don't think that view of history absolves Japan of responsibility for its actions of that era. Unfortunately, it's the only view that students using the new history textbook will encounter. 

Posted by Gaijin Biker

Anonymous said...

"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. "

This is typical of any public education -- whatever is fashionable (ancestor-respect, diversity-respect, etc) is what the children told to think.

Public education especailly very rarely.teaches children how to think. 

Posted by Dan tdaxp



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