Curriculum - Teachers embroiled in textbook clashes

17th January 2014 at 00:00
Row builds in Japan and South Korea over nationalist content

Teachers in South Korea and Japan have been plunged into the centre of bitter national debates, as their respective governments promote the inclusion of controversial right-wing material in school textbooks.

The parallel disputes in the two countries appear to have blown up independently this month. But they both have roots in the fraught and complicated relationship between the neighbouring East Asian nations.

In Japan, the latest development in the conservative government's campaign to introduce a more nationalist tone to the school curriculum will involve the release of revised official guidelines for textbook content.

Ministers want books to describe a small archipelago of islands, currently controlled by South Korea, as "inherent" Japanese territory. The South Korean government has reportedly already lodged an official complaint.

But the Seoul administration, also conservative, is busy with its own school textbook row. This concerns the government's backing of a controversial textbook by right-wing historians, which has been criticised for its positive portrayal of Koreans who collaborated with their Japanese colonial masters between 1910 and 1945, and of the post-independence military dictatorship.

Teachers and their unions have accused President Park Geun-hye - the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a former officer in the imperial Japanese army who became South Korean president after a military coup in 1961 - of trying to distort history.

According to Dr Owen Miller, an expert in modern Korean society at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), this is only the latest explosion in a long-running series of controversies over school textbooks in South Korea.

"They have been related to international relations and the Japanese colonial period on the one hand, and domestic issues and left- and right- wing conflict on the other," he told TES. "Sometimes it is over things that might to us seem really trivial, like whether you refer to the democracy movement in South Korea just by `democracy' or whether you use the term `liberal democracy'."

Teachers are in the thick of the most recent instalment of this conflict. This month, the education ministry began inspecting some 20 high schools that had planned to use the textbooks but changed their minds after the national outcry over the content.

"The inspection is to find out whether they reversed their decision due to external pressure," a ministry official said.

The move was denounced by the left-wing Korean Teachers and Education Workers' Union as "an unprecedented measure to force schools to select the textbook".

In Japan there have been reports of central government exerting similar local pressure. In October, an education minister ordered a school board in Taketomi - a tiny, remote, island township in the East China Sea - to use a conservative textbook that the board had already rejected.

Taketomi's teachers had condemned the text as overly revisionist and were unhappy with its portrayal of Japan's pacifist post-war constitution as an imposition by foreign occupiers who wanted to keep the country weak.

Teaching union leaders believe the government is using Taketomi as a test run for imposing such textbooks - currently used by a tiny minority of schools - on other areas of Japan.

Committees advising the Japanese government have also suggested that textbooks that do not nurture patriotism should be rejected, and that mayors should be put in charge of their local school districts - a move that opponents say would increase political interference in textbook selection.

According to Dr Griseldis Kirsch, a Soas lecturer in contemporary Japanese culture, this is not the first time the country's teachers have opposed nationalist policies.

"The government has had a drive to get this sort of history accepted for a long time, but it hasn't really kicked in, with the teachers in particular," she told TES.

"They have the reputation of being really rather left-wing and progressive. In the 1990s there was a directive saying that the national anthem has to be played at school year opening and closing ceremonies.

"Each year, although it is getting lower, teachers are dismissed because they don't stand up for the anthem, which is controversial because it is the same anthem used during the [Second World] War."

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