The view from here - Japan - A policy of 'don't mention the war'

2nd November 2012 at 00:00

After decades of peaceful coexistence in South East Asia, the ominous clatter of sabre-rattling has returned to the region. All three of its economic giants - Japan, China and South Korea - have some kind of gripe with their neighbours over territory, including disputes about the sovereignty of a series of tiny islands.

In an attempt to soothe the discord, Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has taken an unusual step by appointing a new education minister. Mariko Tanaka, a popular figure in Japan who is known for her outspoken comments, was appointed to the education ministry last month.

Ms Tanaka, the daughter of a former prime minister who normalised relations with Beijing 40 years ago, is recognised for her strong links to China. But her appointment is likely to reignite a long-running argument in Japan about her country's questionable record in teaching the history of conflict between the two countries.

Successive Japanese governments have faced criticism for failing to update history textbooks to reflect the country's aggression during the Second World War, including atrocities in China and mass forced prostitution in Korea. But when previously in government as foreign minister, Ms Tanaka broke the mould by criticising a controversial textbook that many said failed to deal with Japanese war crimes.

"There are deficiencies in Japan's history education," Ms Tanaka again said, somewhat cryptically, after her appointment last month.

Honami Kasaho, a university student living in Tokyo, says of her teenage education in wartime history: "It's as though Japan was nothing but brave patriots fighting for freedom and good in the war. There was almost nothing in my textbooks on Japan's atrocities, compared to German education on their Nazi past. All in all, we get very little education about the war at all. My mother is Chinese, so she filled me in. I was horrified to learn the truth."

Korean and Chinese officials have long argued that a lack of education continues to fuel Japanese post-war transgressions. They could well be right. Successive polls suggest that Japanese citizens are poorly informed of the facts surrounding the events of the Second World War. One poll by the Mainichi newspaper found that 26 per cent of respondents were unable to provide an opinion on Japan's role in the war. Less than half considered Japan's aggression and the war to be a mistake, and 75 per cent said there had not been sufficient discussion.

So far, Ms Tanaka has been coy about whether she will approve a rewriting of textbooks to approach German levels of post-war contrition. But her outspoken record means the debate over what Japanese children are taught about her country's wartime actions is as good as guaranteed.

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