WSJ: Rewriting Japanese History





Editorial in the Asian edition of the WSJ (Sept. 7, 2004):

East Asia just can't get over the past. Japan's refusal to fully explore its brutal World War II behavior has led to an undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment throughout the region -- which manifested itself last month when enraged Chinese soccer fans protested Japan's victory at the Asian Cup match in Beijing.

While the rabid soccer fans' behavior was unpardonable, Japan's unwillingness to acknowledge the dark side of its history bears some blame for such behavior.

It is thus astonishing that some Japanese would want to add more fuel to the fire. Plans to introduce a controversial textbook with important historical omissions at a public school next April have sparked outrage from not only China and South Korea but even from other Japanese as well.

The textbook was compiled by members of the nationalist Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, and approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education. The book will be introduced in a new secondary school. Critics claim that the book omits Japan's wartime atrocities, including the use of germ warfare in China and widespread use of Asian women as sex slaves for the Japanese military. Historians say that around 200,000 women, mostly Korean, were forced into sex slavery.

The introduction of the book rekindles a controversy that first erupted when the book was authorized by the government in 2001, and subsequently used for teaching at 10 junior high schools. Now there are fears that this latest decision may set a precedent for other boards of education to adopt the textbook for use in even more schools in the future.

Thousands of Japanese have reportedly signed a petition protesting the usage of the book. Mutsuko Miki, widow of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki and an alumnus of Hakuo high school, which is affiliated with the new school planning to use the textbook, has objected to the book's adoption.

"The textbook, which doesn't even refer to the issue of 'comfort women,' is not appropriate to Hakuo, which has been supported by women," Ms. Miki said, as reported by Kyodo.

The Asahi Shimbun, a popular left-leaning Japanese newspaper, also condemned the textbook. An Aug. 28 editorial said "We have long argued that this textbook lacks a balanced view of history and is inappropriate to be used in classrooms."

Although the new textbook will initially only be adopted in one more school, it has struck a nerve among Chinese and South Koreans because previous Japanese history textbooks have also whitewashed history and there's a feeling that Japan has failed to apologize or compensate victims for its wartime actions. Also Japanese official visits to Yasukuni shrine -- which houses the souls of Class A war criminals -- have long been a source of tension in East Asia.

At the core of the problem is Japan's failure to openly discuss its past, a problem compounded by the education system. This has resulted in a lack of historical consciousness among many young Japanese, who were most likely bewildered by the degree of hostility shown by Chinese soccer fans. The process of healing the wounds of World War II will never be complete without an open dialogue between the younger generations of China and Japan. But this dialogue cannot happen if one side lacks awareness of its own historical role.

Members of the textbook reform committee claim that focusing too much on Japan's wartime aggressions and the use of comfort women leads to a "self-denigrating" view of national history. But this view couldn't be more misguided. Lack of discussion of these issues in Japan has only led to confusion about Japan's role in Asia and the world, not to mention its own national identity.

This paralysis is most visible in the lack of open debate on whether or not Japan should revise its post-war constitution and become a "normal country" with full military capabilities.

The adoption of these textbooks may be a step back, but the fact that some Japanese are protesting is encouraging. It shows that at least some Japanese realize that acknowledging the past isn't only necessary for bettering regional relations, it's also a matter of national dignity.


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