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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April 2005, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Textbook row stirs Japanese concern
By Jamie Miyazaki
in Tokyo

Officials extinguish a fire set by protesters to burn a Japanese flag during a rally in Seoul, 13/4/05
Anti-Japanese rallies have been staged in South Korea and China
The old adage that time is the best healer may ring true in most parts of the world, but unfortunately not in North Asia.

Every four years Japan's Ministry of Education assesses which textbooks make the grade to be used in its schools.

Its decisions have usually met with an outcry from neighbours China and South Korea, who regularly accuse the ministry of giving the nod to history textbooks that whitewash Japan's dubious World War II legacy.

But this time the Koreans and Chinese have had even more to be vocal about.

Coming hot on the heels of two separate disputes over islands that Japan claims as it own, but are also claimed by China and South Korea, the textbook issue has exacerbated already strained relations.

To Beijing and Seoul's gall, the Ministry of Education and its affiliate the Textbook Authorization Research Council has once again approved the "New History" textbook of right-wing publisher Fusosha.

The textbook refers to the 1937-38 Nanjing massacre, when Japanese troops killed an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 people, by the more innocuous title of "incident".

It also explains that the country's actions during World War II were motivated by "self-preservation" and a desire to liberate Asia from Western control.

Of course we learned about the Nanjing massacre
Yasuhiro Miyauchi

Particularly infuriating for South Korea was the Ministry of Education's decision to make four textbook publishers refer to a disputed set of islands - called Takeshima in Japanese, and Dokdo in Korean - as Japanese territory "unlawfully occupied by South Korea".

But while its neighbours claim that the Japanese history curriculum, and the latest textbooks in particular, are dangerous distortions of Japan's past, this is not a view shared by some Japanese.

In fact many right-wingers, such as prominent politician Shinzo Abe, have taken the opposite view and say that Japanese history textbooks fail to stress the positive advances and achievements that Japan has made.

And some critics have even claimed that the left-wing Japan Teacher's Union exercises an unduly "masochistic" and left-wing bias on the current curriculum, by overly dwelling on the country's wartime misdeeds.

They cite the recent refusal of some teachers to stand up and sing the national anthem as evidence of teachers' own left wing political bias in the classroom.

Shift to right?

Whether the current curriculum has a right or left-wing bias or none at all, most teachers have shunned the controversial Fusosha textbook, which is used in less than 1% of Japanese schools.

And most Japanese remain unconvinced that history lessons have a bias in either direction.

"To be honest, I don't think our history lessons were or are biased," explained Yasuhiro Miyauchi, a 34-year-old product designer.

Yasuhiro Miyauchi
History does still have its influence, Mr Miyauchi said

Indeed, despite the textbook furore, most Japanese have a very strong awareness about the continued influence that Japan's recent chequered history plays in its relations with two of its closest neighbours.

"Of course we learned about the Nanjing massacre, and we learnt it as a massacre rather than just as an 'incident' and yes, unfortunately, it still does have an influence on relations," Mr Miyauchi said.

But while older Japanese may be aware of their mixed historical legacy, some commentators think the country is also in the midst of a broader shift to the right.

They point to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which have inflamed strained relations with Japan's neighbours.

The shrine is said to house the souls, but not the bodies, of Japan's war dead, including a number of convicted World War II war criminals, and is seen as a symbol of Japanese nationalism by China and South Korea.

Some Japanese are worried that the present government's more nationalistic tone and its choice of approved textbooks may exert an undue influence on younger generations of Japanese.

Sayuri Inoue, a 27-year-old sales consultant, said: "I think that the problem is these books may have a bad influence on children in future, and the government is trying to put its opinions into children's textbooks and that worries me."

And the Ministry of Education seems more in chime with right-wing publishers such as Fusosha than at any time before.

Education Minister Nariaki Nakayama is also a prominent right wing member of the Japanese cabinet.

Just last November he remarked that textbooks being used in junior high schools contained passages about Japan's past that espoused a "self-torturing" view of Japan's modern history.

The problem is that Japan's history books do not just help define how Japan's next generation of school students learn to see themselves in the larger world.

They also define how its neighbours continue to see Japan - even if the citizens of China and South Korea, like most Japanese students, never actually get to see one of the controversial books.

History, it seems, can wear whatever face its masters wish it to.


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