Japan's textbook tempest

Japan's rewriting of its wartime history draws international attention to a problem that is by no means only Japanese: the control and manipulation of the content in school textbooks. The land that brought democracy to Japan, the United States, is confronted with a movement to have states adopt a ''textbook content standards act'' that alarms proponents of free speech. Japan's wartime German allies have struggled with the correction of Nazi-era history. Textbook writers from West Germany and Poland have gone so far as to try to eliminate bias by agreeing on the treatment of Polish-German history in both nations' schoolbooks.

One thing that heightens the Japanese situation is the role of the central government. The Education Ministry has command over what appears in textbooks. Thus it looms as national policy when the ministry lays down guidelines that prettify Japan's invasion of China and Korea before and during World War II by avoiding words like ''invade'' in favor of euphemisms like ''advance.'' China has understandably protested, claiming that new textbooks also play down Japanese atrocities. Thousands have demonstrated in South Korea, calling for an end to diplomatic ties with Tokyo unless the books are changed.

But the Japanese government should not need the outcry of other countries to reconsider the rewriting of history -- and perhaps the control of textbooks from the top. The outcry from Japan's own teachers, press, and public should be enough to prevent what one paper called a return to the ''thought control'' and ''doublespeak'' of the 1930s and '40s. The coming Japanese generations will not be well prepared to meet the challenges of the future if they are fed an official distortion of the past.

In West Germany the authorities have long since tried to serve future generations by rewriting history more realistically rather than less. The chances for another ''big lie'' to take hold are less, because education is a responsibility of the states, and there is no single approved textbook for the entire country.

Such dispersal of authority is also a protection in the US. Federal law specifically prohibits federal interference. The resistance to such interference is so strong that when the Carter administration proposed a regulation even for the civil-rights goal of keeping sexism out of textbooks, the regulation was defeated.

The other side of the coin is the potentiality of states and localities to exercise control in irresponsible ways. Twenty-two states have statewide adoptions of textbooks. A publisher competing for big contracts is under great pressure to conform.

But the contrast with centralized control is dramatized in Texas, which happens to be having its annual public hearings on textbooks this very week. These hearings follow a process that includes a proclamation of what the state wants in its textbooks, display of texts by publishers in 15 centers, with opportunity for public written objections and publishers' replies. Then come the current hearings, with objectors and publishers given equal time. Then in September at another open meeting the state textbook committee meets to vote on the books. The 15 members draw not only on the public comment but on the counsel given each of them by five advisers on each subject area. Then the board of education has the final word. Under such a system, the public at least has a chance to be heard.

Now there is the abovementioned move to establish uniformity among the states under an already drafted textbook content standards act. It has been introduced in some states but not yet passed in any. It would require, among other things, that textbooks accept absolute standards of right and wrong and stress such themes as the work ethic, respect for parents, and free enterprise.

Most Americans might not argue with the generalities, but they would surely argue with the imposition of them by law on their children's schoolbooks. To do so state by state would risk ''thought control'' no less than the federal intrusion on education which has been so rightly rejected thus far.

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