The Japanese New History Textbook controversy

A history textbook underplaying Japanese imperialism caused controversy domestically and internationally, write Ayako Komine and Naoko Hosokawa.

The case

A textbook entitled New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho) was published by a committee consisting of conservative scholars in 2000, and was approved as a social science textbook for junior high schools by the ministry of education in 2001. This caused controversy and heated debates both domestically and internationally especially in relation to neighbouring countries, such as China and Korea, affecting Japanese diplomatic relations with them. Official approval of the textbook was seen as controversial, as it underplayed Japan’s war-time aggression during the Sino-Japanese war and the second world war. In practice however, the New History Textbook was adopted by only a few schools in Japan.

Author opinion

In our Japanese junior high school textbook in the 1990s comfort women did exist and Japanese imperialism was an act of aggression. What is presented by the textbook is far removed from our understanding of Japan’s national history but others can contest its veracity much better than we can here.

Instead we want to think about how politics is always implicated in the writing or, in this particular instance, rewriting and not writing of the past. It is not a trivial fact that the publication of the textbook was preceded by a period of instability, during which the long-incumbent Liberal Democratic Party lost control over some of its right-wing members. At the same time, the textbook was adopted by a very small minority of local school boards, not least, because a large enough number of concerned citizens spoke out against its use. In that sense, a plurality of voices as well as the means to express those voices were present in Japan, as they should be in a country with institutions that enable free speech.

In response to this heated controversy, in 2002, Japan, China and South Korea formed a joint research committee on the content of history textbooks. This committee was expected to be a forum for the three countries to exchange their views on history and the textbook. Controversy abated thereafter. The committee continues its activities today and it has published several reference books of history drawn from discussions among experts and incorporating views from each country. However, there are inherent obstacles in accurately reflecting voices from abroad in texts produced as a part of a school curriculum that is one of the sites for the diffusion of national historical narratives, all the more so when these conflict with the narratives of their neighbours.

Ultimately this controversy begs a fundamental question that goes to the heart of the nature of liberal democracy and the nation-state. Should a state be accountable to the voices of people beyond its national borders?

- Ayako Komine and Naoko Hosokawa

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