Japan’s education ministry recently approved a textbook that refers to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre as an “incident” during which “many” people were killed. Most historians agree that hundreds of thousands Chinese were killed during Japan's occupation of the city, which began with a six-week rampage of looting, raping and gruesome torture. Japanese atrocities in China during World War Two included infecting members of the occupied population with plague for medical experiments and forcing thousands of women to become sex slaves for the occupying soldiers.
But there is no mention of that in the new book, which portrays Japan as a reluctant warrior defending Asia from Western colonialists. Japan’s neighbors are outraged and rightfully so, says Derek Mitchell, an Asia analysts at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, he adds, that’s not the whole picture.
“It’s a minority of textbooks. The education ministry authorizes a series of textbooks to be accepted by local school districts. So the local school districts have the choice of taking or not taking a particular textbook.”
Mr. Mitchell says very few schools are planning to use the controversial book, which has also been denounced by the head of the Japanese Teachers Association. But Derek Mitchell says books glossing over Japanese war crimes do crop up every few years at the insistence of Japanese nationalists.
“There is a lot of political pressure in Japan by the far right wing, telling the prime minister and others, ‘You must take care of history and Japan’s past and don’t criticize us too much because it was a patriotic war and we were victims, etc., etc. ,‘” says Mr. Mitchell.
Most analysts of history textbooks say aggressor nations tend to portray themselves as victims. California historian Peter Utgaard addressed the problem in his 2003 book, Remembering and Forgetting Nazism: Education, National Identity and the Victim Myth in the Postwar Austria.
“After the war, the government embraced what many historians refer to as a ‘victim myth,’ where basically Austria was portrayed as the first victim of Nazi aggression, and Austrian participation in the war and Austrian support for Nazism was ignored outright or downplayed,” says Professor Utgaard.
Textbooks are often subject to pressures from politicians, parents and other interest groups. Claudia Schneider of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany says history books are most often targeted.
“Textbooks -- and especially history textbooks -- are a part of politics, so every government will ensure that the textbooks give an account that is to some degree positive of ‘our nation.’ So yes, textbooks are the medium that is the most controlled and the most politicized because they are to educate future citizens of the respective nations.”
As a result, students in different countries learn different accounts of the same historic events. Textbooks in China, for example, glorify communism, while in Taiwan, they revile it. But international and domestic pressures have forced many countries to talk more openly about their past. Julian Dierkes, an Asia scholar at the University of British Columbia in Canada, says many textbooks reflect that. But the transition from a biased to an objective presentation of history is usually gradual. Professor Dierkes says in Japan it took almost two decades.
“Really, the first mentions of Nanjing show up in the 1970s, in the very late 1970s. And
by the time you get to the 1990s, you get fairly direct references to Nanjing with estimates of the number of victims.”
Germany, which is often cited as having committed the worst atrocities of World War Two, has produced the best history textbooks, says Professor Dierkes. Germany invites scholars from other countries to help tell their common history. Professor Dierkes says these joint commissions of textbook writers help ensure objectivity.
“Perhaps the most successful has been the German-Polish one that’s been meeting for over thirty years now and has been significant on both sides in the portrayal of Germany as a perpetrator of atrocities.”
Professor Dierkes says history textbooks tend to perpetuate conflicts among nations because they focus on wars, invasions and casualties, rather than on periods of peace. He says countries that share a turbulent history, such as China and Japan, should form joint textbook commissions in an effort to ensure that the past is presented accurately on both sides.