Ministry relaxes grip on history

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Japan. Globe-trotting Japanese students are often surprised to hear criticism of their country's conduct during the 1930s and 1940s. It is not likely that they condone the actions of their wartime leaders, some of whom were hanged as war criminals, but rather that they simply don't know about the atrocities.

At school Japanese pupils receive a sanitised version of events of the 1930s and 1940s. Details of atrocities such as the notorious massacre of Nanking in 1937, when the Japanese army raped and murdered tens of thousands of Chinese civilians, have been omitted from school textbooks.

Many history texts describe the 1931 invasion of China as "an advance" and largely ignore the unpalatable such as the infamous Bataan Death March, the use of forced labour to build the Burma railway and the terrible conditions inflicted on prisoners of war.

In one text only 16 pages out of 358 are devoted to the far-reaching and catastrophic events from the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937 to the start of the Tokyo war trials in 1946.

Through its tight control of the curriculum, and the textbooks which are used in schools, the ministry of education, or Monbusho, dictates what is taught in Japanese classrooms.

The Monbusho screens every textbook to make sure that the information being presented to pupils conforms to its detailed requirements. Texts which don't conform to the guidelines are sent back to their authors for revision.

One history text was rejected because it contained descriptions of Japan's infamous 731 Unit which carried out human body experiments on Chinese prisoners of war. More than 300 other descriptions in the book were also considered to be incorrect or inappropriate.

The many critics of textbook screening say the policy violates the academic freedom of authors and allows the deeply conservative Monbusho to give a distorted view of controversial issues.

Several textbook authors have tried to present a more balanced view of the country's war history by challenging the Monbusho in the courts. By refusing young Japanese access to the full facts, they argue, the Monbusho is guilty of unconstitutional censorship.

But the courts have repeatedly ruled that the ministry of education has the right to determine the content of school texts.

Katsutoshi Namimoto, a member of the National League which is campaigning to have the textbook screening process abolished, says the Monbusho's interference with school texts denies young people the information that would enable them to examine important issues more critically. "Textbook screening," he said, "discourages Japanese children from developing free and independent viewpoints. "

More complaints have come from South Korea, China and the other countries in east Asia which suffered from Japanese aggression. The most recent spate of complaints, which accompanied last year's 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, has encouraged the Monbusho to review the content of school history texts.

In a recent statement the Monbusho has agreed that more consideration will be given to controversial events in Japan's modern history. It has also sanctioned the use of several new textbooks which provide more graphic descriptions of Japan's brutal occupation of Korea and the invasion of China.

Critics have welcomed the new textbooks but say the accounts of Japan's wartime conduct still don't go far enough. Japanese schoolchildren, they argue, should learn even more about the crimes and mistakes of the past so that the nation as a whole can come to terms with what was one of the most disastrous periods in its history.

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