Orwellian times?

GEORGE ORWELL would be most confused. In his masterpiece, ``1984,'' Mr. Orwell described how a totalitarian society blithely rewrites its national history with little regard for truth in order to serve the interests of the current regime.

Orwell would be confused because it is not a totalitarian society that may be tending toward this practice, but rather a nation governed under one of the most democratic constitutions in modern history.

The director general of the Japanese land agency, Seisuke Okuno, recently said his nation should not be forced to bear responsibility for starting World War II since Japan was only fighting ``to protect itself at a time when the white race had turned Asia into a colony.''

Mr. Okuna was forced out of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita's cabinet in mid-May. But before his resignation, 41 members of the Diet who are also members of Takeshita's governing Liberal Democratic Party endorsed Okuna's revisionist approach to Japanese history.

This is not the first time in the past few years that someone within the Japanese government has created controversy over how to interpret the nation's role in World War II.

In 1981 and 1982, the Education Ministry ordered historians to play down Japan's responsibility for wartime aggression and atrocities in school textbooks. The invasion of China became a much less objectionable ``advance,'' while the 1937 ``Rape of Nanking'' apparently never occurred at all.

This is more than a minor tempest in an academic teapot. Should the Japanese government officially sanction this movement toward justifying the nation's past aggressions, it also might attempt to translate the greatest economic power in Asia into renewed, expansive military strength that could, once again, threaten the Pacific Rim.

Japan dare not forget World War II. Few of today's Japanese people were involved in a war that terminated 43 years ago. It would be a terrible tragedy for a small but vocal and highly placed group of militaristic historical revisionists to lead them unwittingly into another war of aggression in East Asia.

If Orwell would be bemused by what some leading Japanese politicians are trying to do with their nation's history, he would be utterly astonished at what is now happening to the study of history in the Soviet Union, historically a distinctly nondemocratic nation.

Recently, the Soviet newspaper Izvestia announced that the Soviet educational apparatus, controlled by party apparatchiks, decided to cancel elementary and high school history final exams, because the textbooks on which they were to be based are full of ``lies.''

``The guilt of those who fooled generation after generation is gigantic and without measure,'' Izvestia explained. ``They poisoned with lies the minds and souls'' of generations of Russian teachers and students.

Much of the responsibility for those lies is now being laid at the grave of Joseph Stalin and on the heads of those who continue to support Stalinism and, significantly, oppose Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost.

Large portions of Soviet history are now being rewritten in the press, faster than the state publishing houses can organize the resulting materials into textbooks. Stalin's arch-nemesis, Leon Trotsky, is finally receiving favorable, if limited, public mention, while even Vladimir Lenin is no longer immune to criticism, albeit gentle. Yet what Gorbachev gives, he - or his successors - might later decide to take away when doing so serves a perceived pressing national or party need.

We cannot be too sanguine just yet that truth-in-history will fully take root in the USSR. Neither can we be too blithe in believing untruth-in-history cannot become firmly implanted in the soil of so democratic a nation as Japan.

Joe Patrick Bean is an assistant professor of history at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas.

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