Political Pressure Makes History Textbooks Biased



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

Thousands of Chinese protesters took to street demanding a withdrawal of the Japanese history texbook that glosses over war crimes.  as a result, Japanese PM Koizumi publicly appologized for Tokyo's war crimes.
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.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs