Japan encounters fresh flak in battle over its textbook accounts of WW II

World War II may have ended more than 40 years ago, but some of its battles are still being fought. In Austria, the war became an election issue. In Japan, the writing of history textbooks has become a political issue of some import.

The latest skirmish in the battle here has become both a front-page story and a diplomatic issue between Japan and its Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea. Those countries have protested the government's initial approval of a high school history textbook compiled by a right-wing group. The book, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a official note, ``grossly distorts the history of the Sino-Japanese war.''

The Chinese have accused Japan's Education Ministry of failing to honor a 1982 promise ``to seriously self-examine the great harm Japan inflicted upon the Chinese people during the 1937-1945 war.'' That promise was needed to resolve the diplomatic furor that arose over ministry-ordered changes in the wording of previous history texts that toned down references to atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II.

The Chinese have particularly protested the textbook's account of the Nanjing massacre of 1937, one of the most famous incidents of Japanese wartime outrages. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal estimated that about 142,000 Chinese were killed during the incident. Japanese right-wing historians claim that no ``massacre'' ever took place, and the contested textbook says only that ``research has been continuing'' on those events.

Tokyo has responded coolly to the foreign protests. The sensitivities of Asian neighbors are taken seriously. But there is a clear feeling that this is unjustified interference in an internal Japanese matter. Tokyo insists that the final stage in the Education Ministry's review system has yet to take place. ``It is not appropriate for the Chinese government to make official comment on what is still not decided in Japan,'' a Foreign Ministry official stated. The ministry had already suggested hundreds of changes earlier in the screening process. The publishers of the book say that, since the foreign protests, further changes are in process.

Whatever the final shape of the book, which is to have final approval early next month, there is little question of the orientation of its authors.

The book is a product of the National Conference to Defend Japan, founded in 1981 by right-wing intellectuals. The group calls for revision of Japan's postwar Constitution, removing the American-imposed antiwar clause and restoring the Emperor as the formal head of state.

The textbook, the group's chairman says, is an effort to correct a situation in which, ``in our public schools, patriotism is not taught at all.'' According to Toshiro Mayuzumi, a music composer who chairs the group, current texts are inaccurate. He cites as examples the description of the Russo-Japanese war at the beginning of this century as an ``invasion,'' saying it was in fact an act of ``self-defense.''

On the subject of World War II, Mr. Mayuzumi rejects the characterization of the Pacific war solely as Japanese aggression. ``We had reasons why we should begin that war. . . . We should give the younger generation certain different reasons why the Pacific war happened and let them inspect what the truth is.''

The group has no official links with Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but its views mirror the sentiments of a segment of the party. ``Many people in the LDP support our attitude in editing this book,'' claims Mayuzumi, who describes himself as a LDP supporter.

Behind the current wrangle is the issue of the government's role in screening textbooks. Its authority was removed during the American occupation but was restored in the early 1960s, when the government began to supply school textbooks without charge. Choice of a text remains with local school systems, but no book can be used without passing the screening process, a fact which implies government approval of its contents.

The avowedly leftist Japan Teachers Union charges the LDP with promoting a conservative bias in the texts. The LDP has attacked the union for spreading leftist propaganda in the schools. The right to screen texts has been the subject of a 20-year legal challenge posed by historian Saburo Ienaga. In March, the Tokyo high court reversed a lower court decision and upheld the government's power.

The Education Ministry's screening process is somewhat obscure. According to Japanese press reports, screeners often indirectly ``suggest'' changes. Professor Shinoo Ohe, author of another textbook, says it took three years and numerous changes to get his book passed. In one case, a passage referring to 600,000 Koreans brought ``forcibly'' to Japan as laborers during World War II, he had to remove the word ``forcibly.''

The government's role complicates the diplomatic problems that have arisen. While the Japanese resent foreign ``interference,'' noting that they do not have similar purview over the contents of Chinese or South Korean texts (Chinese textbooks are not available to foreigners), Japanese cannot deny their government's ``interference'' in the writing of history.

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