A history that Japan can't forget

Textbooks become a foreign relations flap as Asians protest a new take on WW II.

The polite discomfort between Japan and South Korea over how to view Japan's World War II behavior is turning to anger over an unlikely battleground - Japan's new middle-school history texts.

China has also registered its displeasure with Tokyo after the Japanese Education Ministry last week approved a group of eight books, five of which make no reference to Japan's 1937 massacre in Nanjing nor to "comfort women," a euphemism for Asian women held as wartime sex slaves by the Japanese.

The textbooks are straining ties between Northeast Asia's two largest democratic allies. South Korea went so far as to recall its ambassador to Tokyo Monday. And public outcry in Seoul is growing. The sharp reaction is a reminder that more than a half century later, Japan's neighbors consider the way history is taught to the next generation of Japanese as a matter of utmost importance.

"The Japanese children will grow up to become international fools who don't understand their own country's history," said a pamphlet being handed out by primary school children on the streets of Seoul yesterday.

Yukio Yoshimoto says the Education Ministry's decision is a discouraging setback to the relations he's built with Korean teachers - and newfound friends - across the sea. "I'm very concerned," says Mr. Yoshimoto, member of the Japan-Korea Joint Education Research Group, a cultural and educational exchange. "I'm afraid they'll say we won't have anything to talk about anymore.... One of the new books "is totally the opposite of what we'd want it to be."

That sentiment seems to be echoed by other teachers groups here, including the Japan Teachers Union (JTU), which officially opposes the textbook that seeks to return a patriotic patina to the country's history lessons. But other educators say this is merely a chance to return a sense of balance to the view of history.

"We just want to teach the children about Japanese history with a balanced textbook," says Takamori Akinori, director of the right-leaning Japanese Society for Textbook Reform, which wrote one of the revised textbooks.

"The Japanese mass media took material that relates to China and Korea out of context in ways that are provocative and spread misunderstanding from both Korea and China," says Mr. Akinori. "We are not planning to plant ill-will toward China and Korea in our children."

But one teacher's balance is another's bias. While neo-patriots complain that Japan's lens of history is now focused on alleged human rights abuses and war crimes, others say Japan will only build a better society and stronger bridges if it faces its history without embellishment.

"There is a fact of invading Asian countries, and we need to face it," says Yoshimoto. "The others are eliminating the darker side of history.... When you do that, there's no room for discussion of different viewpoints."

The flap over how to teach children modern Japanese history is just one of many reforms irking teachers. Since studies have shown that students are failing to learn some material, math and science textbooks for 2002 have been pared down.

Shinji Fujikawa, a teacher and the director of the JTU, says that is only going to make his job harder. He says the changes, which have prompted complaints from science and math teachers nationwide, mirror the reason the teacher's union doesn't want to use the new textbook.

"Textbooks, I believe, need to be rich in information, to review important issues over and over again. The textbooks being made now are doing the opposite," says Fujikawa, at the union's headquarters yesterday. "In order for Japan to gain trust internationally, children need to be taught history accurately."

But for a country that reveres consensus, what constitutes historical accuracy is no easy matter. The reformists say that they only wanted to present "the pros and cons."

"At the time, Korean people in Korea thought it was annoying being under the rule of Japanese...." says Akinori. "On the other hand, we also added that [Japan brought] the basics of modernization to Korea," and Japanese modern policies were implemented.

But such attempts to paint Japan's rule in rosier colors - in addition to abolition of references to "comfort women," which the rightists say is a subject too difficult to broach with middle-schoolers - have upset many in Korea. "The relations between Korea and Japan will worsen. The Korean government will move to boycott Japanese products," says Lee Woong-ki, a representative for the Korea Federation of Teachers Associations (KFTA). The group has organized special classes to teach Korean elementary school students about Japan's wartime behavior, which will begin this week in Seoul. "This will teach children the right history - not the distorted one."

Yesterday, South Korea seemed to modify its protest. Yim Sung-joon, deputy foreign affairs minister, says the ambassador's departure was "not a recall, but a consultation trip." He adds: "My government takes this issue very seriously and expressed the deepest regret to the Japanese government. The government also shares the profound anger of the Korean public."

Japan's teachers may not be out protesting, but they will be lobbying Japan's 500 educational districts not to purchase the controversial books. "Even if those books are handed to us, there won't be anyone teaching straight out of the book," says Yoshimoto. He fears that growth in Japan- Korea exchanges, especially since South Korea lifted its unofficial ban on Japanese cultural imports, will be squelched. "Our whole society is moving to the right, especially as our economy is heading into a darker era," he says. "And though I think it's the teachers who should choose, I'm afraid the school boards packed with right-wingers might start handing out those textbooks."

Michael Baker in Seoul contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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