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Game of Words and How it Shakes Asia – Japan’s History Textbooks and its Government

Japan’s education system is no longer just about education – it’s turning into another political battlefield. Unlike the United States and Canada, Japan’s education system is very rigidly structured: Japanese schools must follow a national curriculum imposed by the Ministry of Education. The curriculum is applied uniformly across the country; it specifies what to teach, how to teach, and even what to teach with. This certainly contributes to the nation’s high level of academic achievement, but it has also caused international and domestic problems, as the government uses uniform education to achieve political goals.

Picking a fight with its Neighbors? China and South Korea vs. Japan on textbooks

Tensions between Japan and its Asian neighbors (mainly China and South Korea) have been increasing in recent years. As less-than-polite rhetoric is exchanged between national leaders, and passive-aggressive gestures are taken by governments, the three countries are on their toes, craning their necks to see what political debates others will instigate. Among the many topics of arguments is the issue of Japanese education, and more specifically, that of Japanese Ministry of Education’s recent choice of history textbooks, which is perceived as a blatant political provocation against China and South Korea.

The number of excessively biased textbooks has indeed been increasing, with the degree of nationalist and ultra-conservative bias varying depending on the school’s choice of textbook (with the option of choosing one out of 7 or 8 textbooks, depending on the region).

The most recent version of the most controversial textbook in the curriculum was released in 2010. It was a second edition of a textbook written and published by a famous right-wing group called Tsukuru Kai. The first edition had been published in 2006 and had caused a great uproar in China and South Korea for glossing over major events in history, such as explaining the 1937 Nanjing Massacre as a small “incident” in which many Chinese were killed (the official estimated death toll to approximately 300,000 – a little more than just “many”). It also described Japanese annexation of Korea as an “approved, cooperative decision with the US and European military powers”. Despite great protestation from China and Japan, Japanese government did not take any actions in 2010 to stop the circulation of the controversial textbook or change any of its content. Only its cover was changed. The Chinese and South Korean governments are speculating about the next textbook edition (expected to be released in 2014), and anticipate it to be even more politically provocative.

While the use of right-wing textbooks such as the Tsukuru Kai one is not very popular (only 0.4% of schools used them in 2005), the key question is whether they should be government-approved and available in the first place. One may be compelled to wonder if the Japanese government is intentionally driving its education curriculum in order to present its history in a much more positive light? With the former Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama stating how satisfied he is with Japan getting rid of the term ‘wartime sex slaves’, and declaring that “victimized women in Asia should be proud of being comfort women”, one is left with a distasteful impression that such is indeed the case.

Tug of War within Japan – Reactions from the Japanese People

The country may already be witnessing the impacts of its smoky, censored education. Right-wing extremist nationalism has been growing at a startling rate among Japanese youth in recent years. The Japanese Police estimated that about 100,000 people were involved in the country’s right-wing activism in 1996, with some officials suggesting that the membership may have increased five to six folds since then.

Known as Uyoku Dantai, many of these ultra-nationalist groups regularly host anti-Chinese, anti-Korean activities and events. Most recently in April, a video released by an extremist organization in Osaka showed a Japanese middle-school girl shouting anti-Chinese and anti-Korean insults, as adults behind her urged her on. Similar demonstrations took place outside the Osaka subway station and on the streets, as Uyoku Dantai members drove around in “speaker buses”, pronouncing hate speeches against Chinese and Korean immigrants.


However, this trend does not mean that the entire Japanese population is growing more ultra-conservative. As a matter of fact, in 2002, a textbook compiled by right-wing Japanese scholars and passed by the Ministry, was shunned nationwide by local school authorities, who stated that history – “the conscience of the Japanese public” – could not by any means be distorted.

As early as 1965, and then again in 1982 and 1997, Ienaga Saburo, a prominent Japanese historian filed the first of his three lawsuits against the Ministry of Education’s order to remove “critical language in textbooks”; for example insisting that the textbook says that the Japanese army “advanced into” China instead of its “aggression in” China, and labelling the “March First Independence Movement” as a simple “uprising among the Korean people”. At the end of the thirty-year long lawsuits, the Court requested that the “Government refrain from intervening in educational content as much as possible”, but the ruling has not brought any tangible results.

Many other prominent professors and historians have since then spoken out against the Ministry of Education and the government’s blatant disregard and distortion of history. In 2005, Chinese and Korean immigrants as well as native Japanese people took to the streets requesting a public apology by the Japanese parliament and Prime Minister, and demanded for a law mandating that textbooks truthfully reflect history and that all denials of the Asian holocaust be outlawed.

All History is Biased, but it’s Time to Draw the Line

It is questionable exactly why the Japanese government continues to feed extremist nationalism by authorizing politically provocative history textbooks, despite the diplomatic backlash. It is also extremely concerning that textbooks, some of them omitting critical events in history and others distorting or glossing over important parts of the region’s history, are still being used to teach children all across Japan.

Only about three years ago, The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child strongly encouraged Japan to take actions to “better strengthen the children’s understanding of Japan’s relations with its neighboring countries in a fair and effective manner”. Again, no action has been taken by the Japanese government as of today.

As Frances FitzGerald wrote in America Revised, “History textbooks for elementary and secondary schools are not like other kinds of stories… They are essentially nationalistic histories, written not to explore but to instruct – to tell children what their elders want them to know about their country”. Japan is not the only country guilty of omitting its past mistakes in history and blotting the ugly details. The extent of such actions needs to be regulated not only out of respect for Japan’s neighbors, but also for its own domestic socio-political stability.

– Tiffany Chae Yeon Lee


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercial hrissam42, Creative Commons, Flickr)
(Article photo 1: Attribution Kanko*, Creative Commons, Flickr)
(Article photo 2: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works kiyoshi.be, Creative Commons, Flickr)
(Featured video: sylversterlo, Youtube)

About Tiffany Lee

Tiffany (Chae Yeon) Lee is studying Political Science and International Relations at McGill University. She was born in South Korea and immigrated to Canada in 2004. Her interests include current issues (specifically in East Asia), environmentalism, human rights, and learning foreign languages and cultures.

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