How the textbook issue plays in Japan

Chinese protests over Japanese treatment of World War II in school textbooks surprised many in Japan.

Last week, Japanese watched in astonishment as Chinese protesters calling for a boycott of Japan-made goods smashed windows of Japanese-owned businesses, attacked the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, and beat up Japanese exchange students in Shanghai - all, seemingly, over a textbook issue that comes up regularly.

Beijing is ostensibly angry over Japanese schoolbooks that gloss over the Imperial Army's World War II rampage through Asia. The issue is longstanding, but not something that registers with Japanese as being so outrageous that it can provoke rioting overseas.

Many in Japan see the real source of China's protests in Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, something China deeply opposes. Japan's ongoing insensitivity over official visits to the Yasukuni shrine, where a number of convicted war criminals are memorialized, are another source of tension.

But the textbook issue can't be written off altogether, as it offers insights into what is often seen as Japan's peculiar myopia about Asian sensitivities.

All schools in Japan choose their history texts from a list of seven or eight that are approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education. A group known as the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform got a book written by nationalist historians onto the list in 2001. The ministry regularly demands that phrasing overly critical of Japan's wartime activities be toned down. Left-wing historians have unsuccessfully sued the government over such edits as changing the Japanese army's "aggression in" China to its "advance into" the country.

Past criticism by Beijing as well as Seoul resulted in a new guideline that texts must show understanding and international harmony in their treatment of modern Asian history.

Despite this, the ministry this year inserted a phrase into a text to say that Japan claims the Takeshima islands, now controlled by Korea and known as Dokdo. The amended book was approved on April 5.

Some of the nationalist historians have close ties to schools within Japan's prestigious Tokyo University, which produces most of Japan's bureaucrats and politicians. Accordingly, their views can hold significant sway. One of the authors in question recently was appointed to the Board of Education in the populous prefecture of Saitama at the governor's recommendation.

But many teachers in Japan, who traditionally lean to the left, refuse to have such books in their classrooms - almost no schools use the History Textbook Reform text. Others say recent history should be decided in a more inclusive way. "The textbook issue is something that shouldn't be decided just by looking at domestic opinion - it should take into account the positions that foreign countries hold," says Masaya Shiraishi, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Some groups comprising historians from China, Korea, and Japan are conducting research to agree on one version of historical events in Asia. One such group, at Tokai University near Tokyo, produced a text a few years ago. But "the ministry is a long way from approving such a book," says Fumihiko Sugiyama, a Tokai professor who helped with the text.

He says one reason Chinese get so annoyed about the issue is that texts in China are written by government agencies, but in Japan anyone, even rightists, can submit a text to the ministry.

Mr. Sugiyama says that recent events in China aren't really about the textbook issue. "The main problem is the stubborn attitude of the Koizumi government over such things as Yasukuni."

Still, Tokyo has done little compared with Germany. This stems from the US decision not to address the issue during the occupation, and the tough stance taken against China during the cold war.

For many people, the war defeat marks a break with the past that is difficult to revisit. There is sometimes an embarrassed silence when an old soldier speaks of his experiences. Japanese know the Imperial Army committed atrocities. But after no less than 17 apologies since Sino-Japanese political ties were established in 1972, many are at a loss as to how to redress the grievance.

For most Japanese, China is the country's largest trading partner and a hot new market. Three packed 747s travel each day between Tokyo and Shanghai alone. Academic exchange has blossomed over the past decade as more young Japanese acquire language skills in the hopes of working in China-related areas.

Many Japanese feel the text issue has little to do with them. "The process is out of reach for ordinary people," says Ryozo Yoshino, a sociologist at Tokyo University. Japanese are not particularly interested in foreign issues because of the nation's political isolation since 1945, he adds. Another factor is the progressive simplification of textbooks in line with a more lenient education system.

Others view the anti-Japan sentiment as a way to let off steam that can't be directed at Beijing, he says. Mr. Shiraishi agrees, pointing to similar protests in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

Such violent demonstrations were common in Thailand, says Aunwadee Setakornnukul, a Thai student at Nanzan University in Nagoya. "My father belonged to the anti-Japan league at university and used to go on marches to boycott Japanese products." But now, she says, "I couldn't imagine Thailand without Japanese goods these days."

There is no doubt that Japan's bid for a UN seat had a major influence on the demonstrations, says Sakutaro Tanino, a former ambassador to Beijing. But the violence has ended up leaving egg on China's face, he says. "Ahead of the 2008 Olympics, it looks very bad for China's international image," he says.

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