What Japan Doesn't Know

Nation debates what teens should learn about World War II

JAPANESE educators are increasingly concerned about what high school students know - and particularly about what they don't know: Less than half of Japanese high school students have been taught about World War II. While this gap in teaching has been a constant complaint among some Japanese educators, the issue recently has become more grave for two reasons:

First, Japan's Asian neighbors fear that a partial withdrawal of American troops in the region might spur the Japanese to beef up their own military.

``Other countries fear that Japan, the economic superpower, will become Japan, the military power once again,'' says Akio Igasaki, director-general of People's Education Research, a think tank for the left-leaning Japan Teachers' Union.

Second, there is the often-embarrassing experience among the new wave of globe-trotting Japanese tourists when they realize how little they know of their nation's wartime actions.

In South Korea, for instance, visiting Japanese may ask older Koreans how they came to speak Japanese so fluently. These visitors are criticized for being ignorant of Japan's occupation of the peninsula for most of the first half of the 20th century.

Though Japan's history textbooks cover all periods, ``not much weight is placed on contemporary history'' at school, says Yoji Ozeki, curriculum specialist in the Education Ministry.

That fact was made clear in a little-noticed survey of high school graduates conducted by Nobuo Sato, a teacher and a member of Japan's History Education Conference, a private group lobbying for improved history education. His survey of 2,704 graduates, conducted from 1985 to 1988, found that only about half of the students were ever taught about World War II or its aftermath.

The results pose a danger, says conference director Hisao Ishiyama, that any decision by Japan's leaders to boost the military may be passively accepted by the next generation. Mr. Ishiyama says he is hopeful that many young people learn about Japan's recent past on their own - usually from the news media.

At the heart of the problem lies a continuing controversy in Japan over how to interpret the war. While some older Japanese feel shame about their country's role, others harbor resentment and justify the war.

Lingering emotions and controversies over modern history have led to few Japanese professors specializing in the period. Most scholars prefer to take up Japan's ancient or medieval times. This, in turn, has meant that entrance exams for university admissions lack questions about the war's causes or its aftermath.

In the early 1980s, Japan drew harsh outcries from a few Asian nations as the ministry proposed to use the more ambiguous term ``advance'' to describe Japan's wartime invasion of China.

Textbooks offer only the most basic facts about the war, and leave room for interpretation. In one widely used textbook, the events leading up to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor include this statement: ``The US, which foresaw that the start of war was inevitable and was determined about the war, requested in late November for [Japan] to return to the situation before the Manchurian Incident (1931).''

Saburo Igasaki, a historian and textbook writer, argues that the Education Ministry uses its textbook-screening process to keep vague the points about modern history. Ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) officials deny they have ``pressured'' the ministry to tone down textbook descriptions of wartime cruelties.

Last year, the ministry responded to calls for improving the teaching of modern history by revising its courses of study, the national standards of school curricula. It made sure that high school teachers stress modern history and that world history become mandatory from 1994.

Such a mandate was designed primarily to help ``internationalize'' young Japanese. But some teachers fear the ministry only wants to emphasize teaching about Japan's economic development in the early 20th century.

``I fear that the ministry wants to stress a version of modern history that claims Japan should not take the sole blame for the war,'' says Ishiyama, ``and that it was just `liberating' Asia [from Western imperialists].''

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