Japanese History Textbook Raises Concerns

Asia Today, 10 July 2001

The approval of a controversial Japanese history textbook in April has prompted a wave of criticism from neighboring countries concerned about its accuracy and tone. After a two-month-long review of South Korea's demands for revisions, Japan informed Seoul that it would revise only two of the 35 disputed passages. This has sparked a wave of protests on the streets of the South Korean capital outside the Japanese embassy. According to the BBC, a Chinese foreign ministry statement described Japan's decision as unacceptable and expressed regrets and strong outrage.

For the past two decades, South Korea and China have been particularly vocal about the need for a balanced portrayal of Japan's role in the Asia-Pacific region World War II. In April 2001, South Korea temporarily recalled its ambassador to Japan, Choi Sang-yong, until measures could be established to deal with the textbook issues. Now that Japan has officially rejected most of S.Korea's demands, President Kim Dae-Jung has made statements of his shock and disapproval. He now faces the challenge of balancing diplomatic relations with Japan while still remaining firm with counter measures concerning the textbook.

Japan's Education Ministry endorsed a new textbook, written by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, after having agreed to revise 137 accounts of sensitive issues. Some of the more controversial sections include Japan's colonial rule of Korea and the occupation of Nanjing in China. In 1982 the Japanese Education Ministry screening panel added a neighboring countries clause which states that consideration should be given to other Asian countries when writing historical descriptions.

Despite these efforts at revision, reactions in South Korea and China have been strong. South Koreans are particularly angered that there is no reference in this textbook to Korean Comfort Women who were forced by Japanese soldiers to be sex slaves during World War II. This also comes at a time when a recent Japanese court ruling refused to compensate three Korean comfort women.

Opinion pieces have been appearing mainly in South Korean newspapers discussing the concerns over the contents of the new textbook. Chinese Foreign Minister Zhu Bangzao also expressed dissatisfaction, claiming the textbook is reactionary in nature and continues to gloss over Japan's past aggressions in Asia.

Though critics of the textbook are often using descriptions such as extreme nationalism, right-wing, and reactionary, Japanese officials stress the fact that their government did not produce these textbooks and that the screening process was carried out fairly. In a recent Reuters article, Akinori Takamori, one of the 10 authors of the textbook, states, Past textbooks fawned to the historical views of China and South Korea excessively, and that it is important to have textbooks with a variety of views. Under the Japanese system, the Education Ministry approves a range of textbooks so schools and prefectures can select which ones they want to use.

Though Japan did not foresee the issue developing into a major diplomatic row, South Korean officials have been considering actions over the past months such as boycotting the import of Japanese cultural items and raising the issue at the ongoing U.N. Human Rights Committee session. As these countries continue to battle with their past, the issue of history remains unresolved and a continual sore point in relations.

News Coverage

S Korea strikes back in history row (July 12, 2001)
The BBC reports on the rising stakes in a row over new Japanese history textbooks. Along with protests in South Korea, Seoul has denied two Japanese navy ships permission to dock at its port of Inchon in September and has closed markets to Japanese cultural products.

South Korea freezes ties with Japan (July 12, 2001)
AP reports that South Korea ended military exchanges and canceled a planned visit to Tokyo by a top defense official because of Japan's refusal to revise controversial history textbooks.

Anger deepens in history book row (July 10, 2001)
The BBC reports on the latest reaction in Seoul to Japan's decision to only revise two of the 35 disputed passages.

President warns of tough action over Japan's 'intolerable' response (July 10, 2001) The Korea Herald reports of President Kim Dae Jung's response to Japan's decision and how he plans to deal with it in the future.

Japan makes its textbook 'no' official (July 10, 2001)
Asahi reports on the decision to reject most of the requests by S.Korea and China and gives a good overview of the actual changes that will be made to the textbooks.

History Texts Divide Japan and South Korea Again (July 10, 2001)
The International Herald Tribune reports on the renewed tensions between Japan and S.Korea over the history textbooks and provides some history about the recurring issue between the two countries.

Seoul launches task force on textbook (April 11, 2001)
This Korea Herald article reports on the launching of a special task force in S.Korea under the Education Ministry to address the Japanese textbook issue. The task force will discuss ways to attract international attention to Japan's decision and will consider various proposals made by government agencies, politicians and civic groups.

Seoul recalling ambassador in Japan over history textbook (April 9, 2001)
This Korea Herald article reports on South Korea's move to recall its ambassador to Japan in response to Tokyo's approval of new school history textbooks.

Korea anger as Japan 'ignores atrocities' (April 4, 2001)
This BBC article reports on Japan's firm stance on its decision and the resulting outrage in South Korea.

Foreign Ministry to gloss over textbook uproar (April 4, 2001)
This Japan Times article discusses how the Foreign Ministry is trying to keep the issue low profile and continue diplomatic efforts to strengthen ties with S.Korea and China.

Seoul files protest over Japanese textbook (April 4, 2001)
This South China Morning Post article provides a good overview of the specific problems countries are having with the use of language in the textbook.

Textbooks gain approval (April 4, 2001)
Asahi's article looks at how generally the Tsukuru Kai history book differs from others.

Japan will not bow to neighbors on textbook (April 4, 2001)
CNN gives a brief overview of the situation with sections on Angry Asian neighbors, Not Tokyo's Views, and Not Holocaust Scale.

Japanese Mood Is Mixed About New History Text (April 4, 2001)
This JoongAng Ilbo article traces various Japanese newspapers' reactions to the controversial textbook.

Education ministry OK's draft textbooks (April 4, 2001)
Daily Yomiuri includes information about all the textbooks approved by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, highlighting aspects about the main controversy over the history textbook.

S. Korea lodges official protest over Japanese history textbooks (April 3, 2001)
The Korea Herald reports on a meeting between S.Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo with Amb. Terusuke Terada where Han called on the Japanese government to take measures to redress the problem.

China Slams Japan Over History Textbook (April 3, 2001)
This People's Daily article includes the Chinese government reaction to the textbook with statements from Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao and the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Asian NGOs take concerted action against Japan's textbook distortion (April 3, 2001)
This Korea Herald article looks at the actions and concerns of NGOs in Korea and Japan who have staged protest rallies against Japan's alleged textbook distortion.

KoreaScope Articles
Access recent articles from Koreascope on the textbook issue. This includes the full text of a statement from South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Brief Q&A at Press Conference with Japan's Deputy Press Secretary Chikahito Harada

Japan and History

Japan academic defends controversial textbook (April 6, 2000)
This Reuters article presents Akinori Takamori's perspective, one of the 10 authors of the textbook, and his defense of the new textbook.

Japan's Resurgent Far Right Tinkers With History (March 25, 2001)
This New York Times article looks at the popularity of nationalistic manga in Japan and the growing sentiment that Japan should not be so masochistic about [its] history.

Japanese woman teaches Korea's colonial past (February 12, 2001)
This Korea Herald article profiles an unlikely tour guide at S.Korea's Seodaemun Prison History Hall, a museum that documents how Japan jailed and tortured Korean independence fighters. Yamada Ikuyo, a Japanese woman, became a tour guide to help educate the public about hidden historical facts between the two nations.

The Distortion and the Revision of History in Postwar Japanese Textbooks, 1945-1998
This paper by Tomochika Okamoto, a Ph.D. candidate at Waseda University, Tokyo, is a content analysis of history textbooks used in Japanese high schools in the postwar era. His study has two main objectives. One is to review the changes in content of high school history textbooks in postwar Japan. The other is to analyze the transformation of history education in terms of the rise and fall of postwar Japanese nationalism.

The Society for History Textbook Reform
A short background of the group that wrote the history textbook currently under criticism.

The Restoration of National History
This website presents information about the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, their goals, and why they were established.

Some textbook publishers see history differently
This Asahi article gives a good background to the internal Japanese debate about how to present their history.


Awkward Japan
This editorial in the Washington Post observes that Japan is dealing with two cases of disharmony. While Japan is confronting a major controversy over history textbooks, the country is also faced with a alleged rape case in Okinawa involving a U.S. serviceman. The author argues, the common thread in these two tales is that, in seeking to avoid disharmony at home, Japan may alienate other nations, harming its aspirations to international leadership.

Crisis in Korea-Japan relations
This editorial in The Korea Herald argues that the textbook issue is causing a significant strain in Japan-Korea relations and strongly urges the S.Korea government to come up with effective measures to resolve the long-standing war.

Japan's sincerity put to test
This editorial in the Japan Times states that Japan's censorship system needs reform because it clearly has limitations. It argues that the Korean and Chinese requests for revisions should give a further impetus to the public debate on Japan's past and should not be taken as an interference in domestic affairs.

Deteriorating Korea-Japan Ties
This editorial in The Korea Times questions if S.Korea's counter measures will hurt more than help Korea, but makes strong calls for a campaign by both the government and the Korean public to address the issue.

Govt gave correct answer on texts
This editorial in the Daily Yomiuri praises Japan's response to China and S.Korea's demands calling it appropriate and honest. The author argues that the two countries' demands were based on dissatisfaction over interpretations of historical facts, and of facts that are not mentioned in the teaching guidelines. In this sense, revisions were naturally impossible under the current authorization system.

A History of Lies
This editorial from Choson Ilbo argues that the final decision to approve the textbook is evidence of how the whole process was problematic from the start because Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology does not allow examiners room to question the qualifications of textbooks based on the philosophy of history.

Seoul Searching: Whitewashing History
Donald MacIntyre writes in Time Asia about how Koreans who are outraged at Japan whitewashing its history need to examine their own education system. Pointing to the Hitler bar down in the southeast port of Pusan, he reports on a number of Nazi Theme bars in Korea that have swastikas for sale and Nazi decorations. MacIntyre argues that Koreans should also examine the insensitivity of certain historical issues in their own society.

Japan's extreme nationalism
This Korea Herald editorial criticizes Japan's view of history claiming that the intermittent controversy over Japan's history textbooks could be mistaken as a leftover issue from the past or an expression of inferiority from the Koreans who were once Japan's colonial subjects. But this is a misguided notion...the history textbook issue is a serious issue that relates to the future of Asia, and even world peace at that.

Nationalistic mindset of Koreans
In response to a Korea Herald article, Negative views of Korea found in foreign textbooks, this editorial argues that Koreans are being irrational in their fanciful use of English. The author uses the example of the debate over the name Sea of Japan showing how language has gotten out of hand because of an evasive and nationalistic spirit in Korean students.

Japanese Distortion of History
This Korea Times editorial argues that the new textbook shows a viewpoint of history influenced by rising national sentiment longing for past glory, fueled by the decade-long economic depression and disenchantment with the political and social establishments. The author predicts that the movement against the textbook will be spearheaded by civic groups who will push for schools not to adopt the controversial history books.

Voices of intellectuals
This Korea Herald editorial supports the dialogue between Japanese and Korean Universities calling on further contacts between intellectuals of the two countries to together seek solutions.

Internet Links

Japan Information Network

Stanford Guide to Japanese Information Resources

Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Website


Korea Web Weekly

WWW Virtual Libraries for North and South Korea