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Special> 70th> Opinion
UPDATED: April 24, 2015 NO. 18 APRIL 30, 2015
A Textbook Case of Historical Revisionism
By Zhang Zhiping

On April 6, Japan's impressively monikered Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) gave the go-ahead for a new set of textbooks on history, civics and geography to be adopted by junior high schools next year. The books name the Diaoyu Islands as Japanese territory. Moreover, some describe the Nanjing Massacre using passive constructions such as "captives and civilians were involved" and "casualties were exposed," in contrast to the previous phrasing that the Japanese Imperial Army "killed many captives and civilians." Such terminology absolves the responsible parties of culpability. It betrays historical facts and represents an affront to Chinese people who suffered wartime atrocities.

Ever since 1989, the majority of significant changes made to Japanese textbooks have occurred on the Shinzo Abe administration's watch. Shortly after he took office for the first time in 2006, the prime minister pushed through legislation requiring Japanese schools to encourage "patriotism" in the classroom. In April 2013, only several months into his second term, he proposed to the National Diet, Japan's equivalent of the U.S. Congress, that textbook review standards be changed. MEXT overhauled these standards in January 2014, requiring educators to adopt a unified government perspective when addressing historical and territorial issues.

For a long time, the sole available avenue for certain elements of the Japanese right wing to promulgate their version of events was through textbooks they themselves compiled. These textbooks, however, comprised only a small proportion of the total employed in Japanese classrooms, and the influence they exerted upon students was thus limited. The popularization of these revised works in Japanese public education marks the first time in the past decades that revisionist elements have been successful in subsuming their opinions within the mainstream historical narrative. This gives what is already a highly slanted historical view the outward appearance of an objective fact and may serve to distort Japanese young people's view toward history.

Formerly, whenever a right-wing party held power in Japan, their political opposition would keep them in check with regards to the depiction of historical events in teaching materials. Today, however, there has arguably been a marriage between historical and territorial perspectives between the two sides. After the changes were announced, Japan's largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, brooked no opposition to the textbooks' description of the islands, save to contend that illustrations in former editions were inadequate.

From any reasonable perspective, Abe's standpoint on modern historical issues is ill founded. For the purposes of confounding his views on his country's past aggressions, a more adequate body of evidence already exists, encompassing eyewitness testimony, material evidence, and transcripts from the trials of Japanese war criminals of World War II, as well as official pronouncements by his fellow statesmen, Yohei Kono and Tomiichi Murayama.

All of this serves to remind Japan and the international community that the former's acts of invasion and massacre and its drafting of comfort women during World War II are all, sadly, facts inscribed in stone. We can forgive, but for the sake of the dead, the living and those yet to come, we cannot forget. As to territorial issues, a similarly compelling abundance of documentation exists establishing that the Diaoyu Islands are the territories of China.

The retrogression evident in the revisionist textbooks reflects the consistent practice of the Abe administration concerning historical and territorial issues. The aim is to impart an inaccurate version of historical events onto Japan's youth and the international community at large. Such actions run contrary to the country's attempts to improve relations with neighboring countries and may impede the development of East Asia's burgeoning economy.

At present, the level of interaction between the peoples of China, South Korea—which also suffered Japanese occupation—­and Japan is increasing, pointing encouragingly to a more convivial state of affairs across the whole of East Asia. The Abe administration, however, has stuck firm to its position on historical and territorial issues, and has thus slowed the vital thawing of Japan's relations with its neighbors.

At the 2015 International Forum for the Trilateral Cooperation held in Tokyo on April 3, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda imparted some words of wisdom: "The leader of a state must not be agitated by public opinion. At the same time, the leader must not agitate public opinion." The present incumbent of his position would do well to take heed of his predecessor, lest he, unwittingly or in full knowledge, sow the seeds of future instability in East Asia.

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to zhangzhiping@bjreview.com

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