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Straight out of Orwell? History Teaching in Japan Today
By Alexis Dudden

THAT Japanese politicians want to shape national history education in Japan is not surprising. Nor are their efforts unique. American politicians regularly memorialize the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “necessary” — some even ascribe to it moral virtue — despite abundant evidence to the contrary. The ramifications for generations of Americans are clear, with most initially learning about these events in school textbooks through similar self-justifying narratives, revealing the central place of these moments in this country’s most intricate “history problems.”


Noticeably, however, in Japan today some politicians and opinion leaders are demanding such unquestioning loyalty to radically extreme interpretations of modern Japanese history that blowback to their efforts has propelled people and groups better known for subtler critique to protest on center stage. Beginning with the Japanese Historical Science Society in October 2014, at press conference after press conference these voices — together with activists long leading the public charge — reveal the irony of the current state of play: the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s rigidly proscriptive definition of history has generated unprecedented scrutiny and condemnation of its falsehoods both within Japan and around the world. As things stand, a powerfully entrenched minority now clings to what the government defines as a “correct” understanding of the nation’s past. For many others, the time is ripe to challenge these views.


In March 2015, the Japanese government released the latest round of state-approved junior high school textbooks. A variety of intentional misrepresentations appeared, including a wildly fantastical rewriting of the dispossession of the indigenous Ainu from their land in northern Japan in the late 19th century. Instead of the forced removal that took place, the story now explains that these people benefitted from being given good farmland (never mind that the Ainu were hunter-gatherers).


Notwithstanding which fabrication or elision in the new textbooks is most egregious, the year’s hot-button political issue, the history of Japan’s state-sponsored system of military sexual slavery known commonly by its derogatory euphemism “comfort women,” drew the most focus. Unsurprisingly, the results followed a retrograde trend in motion since 1997, when six in seven of the approved textbooks included mention of this issue. By 2003, only three in eight did. Currently, none does, yet the new list adds a textbook that vaguely acknowledges something unpleasant in the past involving women (mainly Korean) having sex with Japanese soldiers, yet its publishers have made the obscenely counterproductive decision to remove previously published testimony by victims, because the evidence counters the government’s view. Therefore, the government-approved textbook that includes mention of the larger history does greater disservice to the truth than those that do not; in its telling, the victims themselves are to blame for one of the greatest human rights violations of the 20th century.


But could we expect otherwise? In October 2014, Abe’s minister of education, Hakubun Shimomura, challenged the need for dictionaries in school classrooms, suggesting that the contents in them could lead to “misunderstandings.”


George Orwell, were he alive today, would surely feel satisfaction at seeing echoes of the Big Brother authorities he imagined.


Japanese classrooms, however, remain places of open learning by world standards. The nation’s constitution guarantees academic freedom, and teachers can introduce supplementary materials on their own — at least in theory. Yet different even from Japan’s very recent past, these latest textbook distortions appear within a newly precarious social milieu. As a result, not only do the glaring absences and contortions increase the burden of teaching the truth to already over-extended faculty — and as before, no additions would appear on required exams — but challenging any of them now also carries potentially ominous risks.


In the crosshairs is the issue of “coercing” victims into the system of sexual servitude by Japanese military officers and agents and brokers working for the Japanese military. Many middle school teachers know full well that many official Japanese government documents have already demonstrated the Japanese military’s responsibility — having previously taught this evidence in once-approved textbooks — yet now this history would appear not to have happened.


Flash to a Japanese classroom today in which a teacher finds him or herself wishing to elaborate on the role of the Japanese military to a bunch of 12- and 13-year olds (roughly the same age as many of the victims involved in the “comfort women” system). It is not forbidden to do so, yet the teacher must now produce the supporting evidence on his or her own, drawing outsize attention to now-banned materials that were once approved — a highly difficult move, and especially so among adolescents given the sensitive nature of the topic involved. In the mix, the teacher additionally risks having a student take a photograph or tweet his or her action and spreading it on social media in a Japan where special secrecy laws came into force in December 2014. For all anyone yet knows, this imaginary teacher’s behavior would be in violation of these new laws. No one — including the Japan Bar Association, which has formally protested the poorly defined secrecy laws — can reasonably know whether or not this teacher’s act would violate those laws until the unnamed people who have defined them say so.


Far-fetched? Perhaps, yet it is clear that in Japan right now, teaching already published yet recently elided materials of certain histories is not only extra work; it could also jeopardize one’s livelihood. In such an atmosphere, arrests may not be necessary because self-censorship could silence dissent instead.


It all seems pretty cowardly to put this on teachers. It also reveals pretty clearly just how afraid the Abe administration is of modern Japanese history, because the reality undercuts so many of its own self-delusions. In the short run, this tactic may work to validate the prime minister’s singular worldview of what he calls a “beautiful Japan.” Yet Japanese history teaches that such rigidity unravels itself. The question is simply a matter of time and pressure.


And, at this juncture, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “things are gonna get interesting right about now.”


As this essay was going to print, at a press conference in Tokyo on June 9 the latest in a string of “Open Letters” appeared, adding to a series of them published since October 2014 within Japan and around the world. In it, a number of prominent historians of the Japanese empire announced their “2015 Statement by Japanese Intellectuals on Japan-Korea History Problems.” Of all the publicized appeals, and with a clear eye to the 70th anniversary on August 15 of the Japanese empire’s collapse at the end of World War II, this letter most urgently elucidated the interplay between political pronouncements about national history and a society’s broader understanding of what’s involved.


At once, the authors of the “2015 Statement” — including Haruki Wada, Hirofumi Hayashi, Aiko Utsumi and Chizuko Ueno, among others — acknowledged that although “there (were) still historical problems to be settled” between Japan and Korea, Abe “must reaffirm that invasion and colonial control caused harm and pain to neighbor countries including China and Korea, and must express renewed sentiments of regret and apology.” The letter also made clear that politicians who foster an open-ended and empathetic approach to the past enable historians to do their work — to unearth new materials to learn from and teach — while those who aim to the contrary engender “pathological phenomena such as hate speech.”


Here, the June statement dovetailed importantly with the May 5, 2015 international letter, “In Support of Historians in Japan,” that was signed by nearly 500 scholars of Japanese studies from around the world. That letter, too, focused on the issue of the so-called “comfort women” and also sought to reclaim history from those who would use it as a weapon rather than learning from it “to understand the human condition and aspire to improve it.”


In the mix, historians and others who have dared to take up the Abe administration’s challenge to “leave history to the historians” have found themselves denigrated as “traitors,” “anti-Japanese,” “arrogant” and “extreme leftists” among other things. As a result, it becomes clear that what those insisting on what they call a “correct” history — very much including education ministry officials —are instead proffering a series of partially selected and shaped fragments devoid of context in ways that would support a preferred memory of an imagined current and future Japan.


Almost in final judgment, two of Japan’s most celebrated novelists have recently entered the public sphere. Haruki Murakami and Jiro Asada have made different yet complementary remarks urging the Japanese government to understand the need to continue to make apologies for Japan’s pre-1945 actions in Asia and to take responsibility for them. Doing so, they make clear that what is taking place broadly speaking with regards to political understandings of Japanese history is not a Japan versus Korea or Japan versus China “thing;” rather, it is a Japan-Japan debate, with nothing less than the country’s national identity at stake.


Impossible to predict what will come, yet more than ever it is vital to shine as much light as possible on the voices challenging the Abe party line.




Alexis Dudden is a professor in the Department of History at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Connecticut. She is the author of Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (2008), among numerous other publications.

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    At the heart of current tensions between Japan and its Asian neighbors are efforts by the government of Shinzo Abe to rewrite the history of Japan’s atrocities in World War II. The fulcrum of that revisionism is school textbooks, which have now effectively erased the history of so-called “comfort women.” Alexis Dudden unravels how the debate pits not so much Japan against its Asian neighbors as Japanese who want to acknowledge history against those who don’t.
    Published: Jun 29, 2015
    About the author

    Alexis Dudden is a professor in the Department of History at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Connecticut. She is the author of Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States (2008), among numerous other publications.

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