Japan revises its history texts

Okinawa residents protest attempts to play down the Imperial Army's role in World War II mass suicides.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On the eve of the American invasion of this subtropical island 62 years ago, Haruko Miyahira heard her elder brother, Seishu, tell their father about an order from the Japanese military.

"My brother, who was then deputy mayor, told our father that US troops were about to land on the island, and said to him, 'We were ordered from the military to kill ourselves. Let's die together with good grace!'" Ms. Miyahira recalls.

Many older islanders like Miyahira recall the warnings from the Imperial Army that American soldiers, closing in on Japan at the end of World War II, would treat captured women and men brutally. Civilians were told to kill themselves rather than surrender. Then, they were each given two grenades and instructed to hurl one at the Americans and blow themselves up with the other.

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"It was hammered into us by the military and wartime indoctrination," says Kaoru Miyazato, another islander who says he lost many relatives in the suicides. "The Japanese military kept a firm grip on the village office."

The history of coerced suicides during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the bloodiest of the Pacific war, is familiar to every Japanese high school student from nationally approved textbooks. But that could change: this past spring the government said that it had ordered textbook revisions to indicate that some Okinawans committed suicide or were forced to commit mass suicide, but not 'by whom.'

Official accounts of Japan's wartime history have long been a source of deep contention in the region. China and Korea say that Japan has never been willing to confront its brutal behavior in World War II, denying or soft-peddling such events as the Nanjing Massacre in China or forcing women into sex slavery (comfort women) for Japanese soldiers.

"They want to recover the reputations of the Imperial Army by downplaying 'comfort women,' the Nanjing Massacre and Okinawa's mass suicides," says Yoshifumi Tawara, general secretary of Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21, a Tokyo-based civic group. "To make Japan wage war once again, they need to establish the illusion that the military protects civilians."

Last week, 170 Okinawans, including the chairman of the assembly, local authorities, and civic group leaders, went to Tokyo, demanding that the textbook revisions be revoked. Their trip followed protests last month that brought over 110,000 to a rally in Ginowan, the largest since Okinawa reverted to Japan in 1972.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has said he will seek a compromise on the revisions, which are to appear in textbooks at the start of the new school year in April. But Education Minister Kisaburo Tokai has said overturning them would be difficult and could alienate powerful nationalists in his Liberal Democratic Party.

Many Japanese politicians, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and nationalist scholars and journalists, have been increasingly vocal about what they see as masochistic views of history.

Some 200,000 Americans and Japanese died in the Battle of Okinawa. In Zamami Village, which includes 20 other smaller islands, about 1,200 people died, and 402 people committed mass suicide. There were more mass suicides in this region, called the Kerama Islands, than in the rest of Okinawa.

To people here, the textbook revisions are a flat denial of what Okinawa's elders went through and what they have been telling younger generations, says Etsuko Urashima, an Okinawa-based author and journalist.

"Young people are retorting, 'Is the government saying our grandparents are lying?' " she says.

Others are worried about the precedent it sets. "Should we let this happen, I think the government will continue to gloss over one after another," says Kodai Tsukayama, a senior at Yomitan High School in Yomitan Village, where more than 100 villagers are believed to have committed mass suicide.

"The government is trying to crush Okinawans' testimonies under their foot," says Tetsuei Tamayose, an organizer of the September protest, recalling that one Japanese soldier put two hand grenades in front of him and told him to use them. "I will never forget."

Indeed, while Okinawa's September protests won national headlines, stunning many Japanese, coverage quickly receded from the front pages. "The Japanese major media downplay issues in Okinawa," says Kenichi Asano, journalism professor at Doshisha University, Kyoto. He adds that some Japanese do not see Okinawa, which was annexed in the late 19th century and today hosts most of America's military presence in the country, as part of Japan.

For Miyahira, whose brothers and relatives killed themselves, the memory of what happened after she was captured by US soldiers as she fled the bombing undergirds her opposition to any textbook revision. "When Americans offered us something good to eat, I was finally able to think of many of my family members who committed mass suicide," she recalls. "I could not bear it."

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