Japanese history textbook controversies involve controversial content in one of the government-approved history textbooks used in the secondary education (junior high schools and senior high schools) of Japan. The controversies primarily concern the Japanese nationalist efforts to whitewash the actions of the Empire of Japan during World War II.
Another serious issue is the constitutionality of the governmentally-approved textbook depictions of World War II, Japanese war crimes, and Japanese imperialism during the first half of the 20th century. The history textbook controversies have been an issue of deep concern both domestically and internationally, particularly in countries which were victims of Imperial Japan during the war.
Despite the efforts of the nationalist textbook reformers, by the late 1990s the most common Japanese schoolbooks contained references to, for instance, the Nanking Massacre, Unit 731, and the comfort women of World War II, all historical issues which have faced challenges from ultranationalists in the past. The most recent of the controversial textbooks, the New History Textbook, published in 2000, which significantly downplays Japanese aggression, was shunned by nearly all of Japan's school districts.
School textbooks in Japan are not written by the Ministry of Education. Instead, the textbooks for all subjects in elementary, and both lower and upper secondary schools are written and published by several major private companies. This system was introduced to Japan after World War II to avoid government having direct authority over the written contents. Japan's School Education Law () requires schools to use textbooks that are authorized by the Ministry of Education (MEXT). However, each local education board has the final authority to select which textbooks can be used in their jurisdiction from the approved list.
In Japan, potential school textbooks must pass a sequence of evaluations before receiving approval to be used in Japanese schools. First, textbook companies submit a draft of their proposed textbooks to the Japanese Ministry of Education. The Textbook Authorization and Research Council (), an official council of the Ministry of Education, composed of university professors, junior high teachers, checks the draft in accordance with the Ministry's educational curriculum guidelines () to ensure that the contents of the proposed textbook is "objective, impartial, and free from errors." The Ministry of Education will give the company that authored the textbook the opportunity to revise the draft when it is found to contain information that is inconsistent with national guidelines. Once the textbook revisions are complete and the textbook has received the approval of the Ministry of Education, Local Boards of Education select books from a list of authorized textbooks for schools under their jurisdiction. The process of textbook authorization is ongoing and conducted every four years, the results of which are presented to the public the following year.
Critics claim that the government textbook authorization system has been used to reject textbooks that depict Imperial Japan in a negative light. This includes a case in the 1960s where a description of the Nanking Massacre and other war crimes committed by the Japanese military before and during World War II was rejected by the Ministry of Education. The author sued the Ministry, finally winning the case decades later. Recent controversy focuses on the approval of a history textbook published by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which placed emphasis on the achievements of pre-World War II Imperial Japan, as well as a reference to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with fewer critical comments compared to the other Japanese history textbooks. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose noted that "The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: 'One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us.'"
Defenders of the system counter that a book which fails to mention specific negative facts regarding the aggression and atrocities committed by Japan during World War II would also fail the Ministry of Education's approval process. During the approval process for the aforementioned history textbook by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, the author was ordered to revise the book's content several times before receiving final approval. Moreover, during the Cold War, the Ministry rejected textbooks by left-leaning publishers which attempted to portray the Soviet Union, Mainland China, North Korea and other Communist countries in a positive light. Defenders also point out that during the 1960s and 1970s, the extent of the atrocities, as well as the existence of many of the incidents, were still being debated by Japanese historians; therefore, the Ministry of Education was correct in rejecting references to specific atrocities such as the Nanking Massacre during that era, but the Ministry finally insisted on the inclusion of those same incidents after Japanese historians had finally reached consensus during the 1990s. They also point out that, North and South Korea, as well as China, which happen to be the most outspoken critics of the Japanese textbook approval process, do not allow private publishing companies to write history textbooks for their schools. Instead, the governments of those countries write a single history textbook for all of their schools. In the case of South Korea, the government strictly examines textbooks from different companies before being publicized. Critics of Chinese and Korean textbooks also argue that the textbooks of those countries are far more politically censored and self-favoring than Japanese textbooks.
Today there are 30 unique textbooks for Social Studies (, from 5 different publishers, in Japanese primary schools. Additionally, there are 8 unique textbooks for the study of history as part of the Japanese Social Studies curriculum Shakai) (- Shakai-Rekishi teki bunya), from 8 different publishers, for junior high schools. In Japanese high schools, the number of available options is much greater, with 50 unique textbook editions available for teaching Japanese, and world history.
The current textbook authorization system began in 1947 under the direction of the U.S.-led Supreme Commander, Allied Powers (SCAP) authority during Japan's post-World War II occupation. SCAP ordered the provisional government of Japan to end the system of government-designated textbooks ( and allow scholars in the private sector to write textbooks. Local educators would then choose which textbooks to use at their schools. Descriptions that promoted Kokutei Ky?kasho)militarism and ultranationalism were eliminated, and the new idea to promote the dignity of the individual () was introduced. The New School Education Law states that while the government sets a curriculum guideline, it is not meant to establish a fixed, uniform line for all educators to observe, like in the old militarist days, but rather to help educators to creatively adapt the curriculum to the new demands of children and society in general.
Tokushi Kasahara identifies three time periods in postwar Japan during which he asserts the Japanese government has "waged critical challenges to history textbooks in attempts to tone down or delete descriptions of Japan's wartime aggression, especially atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre." The first challenge occurred in 1955, and the second took place in the early 1980s. The third began in 1997 and continues unresolved to this day.
At the general election of February 1955, the Japan Democratic Party proposed an idea that whilst editing of school textbooks might be left to the private sector, the government ought to supervise them and limit the kinds of textbooks to about two for each subject by tightening the authorization, so that the textbooks in effect would be equivalent to government-designated textbooks.
At the Special Committee on Administrative Inspection of the House of Representatives in July of the same year, Kazutomo Ishii (?) of the Democratic Party of Japan suggested that textbooks were about to be published that could overthrow the principle of the education of Japan. He characterized these textbooks as:
In addition, from August to October of the same year, the Japan Democratic Party published three volumes of booklets entitled "Ureubeki Ky?kasho" (, deplorable textbooks). The first volume listed four types of bias as "examples of biased education that appeared in textbooks":
The Japan Democratic Party condemned these textbooks as biased "red textbooks" (). In response to this, the authors and editors of the listed textbooks made various public statements and protest notes. However, the Japan Democratic Party did not reply. Since this incident a greater number of textbooks had been rejected as being biased ().
The changes resulted in one-third of pre-existing textbooks being banned from Japanese schools. The Ministry of Education required that new textbooks avoid criticism of Japanese involvement in the Pacific War, and avoid mention of the Japanese invasion of China and involvement in the Second Sino-Japanese War at all.
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Textbook screening in 1956, right after a change of the members of Textbook Authorization Research Council () in September of the previous year, failed six drafts of textbooks, a significantly greater number than before. The evaluations of drafts by the Council had been noted by five letters from A to E, each representing the evaluation of a member in the Council. At 1955's screening, however, there was an additional section F that was considered responsible for the rejection of all the six drafts. Over this incident professor Iwao Takayama (?) of Nihon University who newly joined the Council was suspected be the writer of section F, and the news media reported the incident as the "Section F purge" (F?, "F-ko paaji").
Saburo Ienaga was a Japanese historian known partly for his involvement in controversies regarding school history textbooks. In 1953, the Japanese Ministry of Education published a textbook by Ienaga but censored what they said were factual errors and matters of opinion, regarding Japanese war crimes. Ienaga undertook a series of lawsuits against the Ministry for violation of his freedom of speech. He was nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize by Noam Chomsky among others.
On June 26, 1982, the Japanese textbook authorization system became a major diplomatic issue for the first time when Asahi Shimbun reported that the Ministry of Education demanded a textbook, which stated that the Japanese army invaded () Northern China, be rewritten using the phrase "advanced () into" instead of invaded. Having heard this news the Chinese government strongly protested to the Japanese government. In response, on August 26, 1982, Kiichi Miyazawa, then the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, made the following statement:
Despite the widespread attention that the issue received in both the Japanese and international media, investigations done in September 1982 reveal that the alleged change never actually took place, that the ministry of education did not even make a recommendation for the change, and that the entire incident was caused by hasty and inaccurate reporting by a small group of journalists assigned to cover the Ministry of Education.
In November 1982 the Ministry of Education adopted a new authorization criterion, the so-called "Neighboring Country Clause" (): Textbooks ought to show understanding and seek international harmony in their treatment of modern and contemporary historical events involving neighboring Asian countries (?).
In 2000, Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a group of conservative scholars, published the New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho, ), which was intended to promote a revised view of Japan. The textbook downplays or whitewashes the nature of Japan's military aggression in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and in World War II. The textbook was approved by the Ministry of Education in 2001, and caused a huge controversy in Japan, China and Korea. A large number of Japanese historians and educators protested against the content of New History Textbook and its treatment of Japanese wartime activities. China Radio International reported that the PRC government and people were "strongly indignant about and dissatisfied with the new Japanese history textbook for the year 2002 compiled by right-wing Japanese scholars".
Subsequently, the New History Textbook was used by only 0.039% of junior high schools in Japan as of August 15, 2001. According to the Society, there are currently eight private junior high schools, one public school for the disabled in Tokyo, three public junior high schools and four public schools for the disabled in Ehime that use their textbook (Mainichi Shimbun, September 27, 2004).
Anti-Japanese demonstrations were held in the spring of 2005 in China and South Korea to protest against the New History Textbook.
In 2007, former education minister Nariaki Nakayama declared he was proud that the Liberal Democratic Party had succeeded in getting references to "wartime sex slaves" struck from most authorized history texts for junior high schools. "Our campaign worked, and people outside government also started raising their voices."
Japan ordered history books to change passages on forced suicides during World War II. In June 2007, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly officially asked the Ministry of Education of Japan to retract its instruction to downplay the military's role in mass suicide in Okinawa in 1945. More than 100,000 people in Okinawa rallied against the textbook changes at the end of September. According to the Kyodo News agency, it was the biggest staged rally on the island since its 1972 return to Japanese rule. Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima spoke to the crowds, commenting that the Japanese military's involvement in the mass suicides should not be forgotten.
A comparative study begun in 2006 by the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University on Japanese, Chinese, South Korean and US textbooks describes 99% of Japanese textbooks as having a "muted, neutral, and almost bland" tone and "by no means avoid some of the most controversial wartime moments" like the Nanjing massacre or to a lesser degree the issue of comfort women. The project, led by Stanford scholars Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel Sneider, found that less than one percent of Japanese textbooks used provocative and inflammatory language and imagery, but that these few books, printed by just one publisher, received greater media attention. Moreover, the minority viewpoint of nationalism and revisionism gets more media coverage than the prevailing majority narrative of pacifism in Japan. Chinese and South Korean textbooks were found to be often nationalistic, with Chinese textbooks often blatantly nationalistic and South Korean textbooks focusing on oppressive Japanese colonial rule. US history textbooks were found to be nationalistic and overly patriotic, although they invite debate about major issues.