Japan marked the 56th anniversary of its surrender at the end of World War II yesterday. The commemorations came amid increasing regional tensions over how the country views its historical place in Asia during the first half of the 20th century.
Two days after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited a controversial Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead - including 14 convicted war criminals, whose memory is an affront to many of Japan's neighbors - five members of his cabinet and some 120 lawmakers visited the shrine on the date he had avoided in hopes of quelling a regional outcry.
While the visit nonetheless sparked protests from China, South Korea, and other Asian countries that Japan colonized before World War II, a far less telegenic news story unfolded on the same day. The country's new middle-school textbook, the source of outrage for Asian neighbors who suffered under Japanese occupation, was only adopted by six public school districts out of a total 532 nationwide, according to a poll done by NHK, Japan's state-sponsored broadcaster. That development casts doubt on all the criticism heaped on Japanese leaders for encouraging neo-nationalist tendencies in Japan.
Yesterday, in addition to being the day when Japanese solemnly marked the loss of almost two-and-a-half million lives in World War II, also marked the deadline for Japanese school districts to report which textbooks they will use this fall. And by all accounts, teachers and parents appear to have virtually rejected attempts by revisionist historians to provide a view of Japan's history that many here and abroad view as dangerously sanitized.
Shinichi Arai, an opponent of the revised textbooks from the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan's War Responsibility, says activists were successful in their campaign to stop the textbooks - one of seven available for use in school districts - from being adopted for the 2001-2002 school year. The new book was authorized for use, he says, after Japan's education ministry was pressured into approving it by right-wing special-interest groups.
"They failed to recognize the power of civil society," says Professor Arai, who teaches Contemporary Cultures at Surugadai University. "In this situation, the textbook problem was handled well.... The Japanese do not want to wake a sleeping dog.... They like to choose the middle and like peace at any price."
The textbooks, which were approved earlier this year, removed references to "comfort women" - women forced to serve as sex slaves to Japanese troops - and calls parts of WWII "the Great East Asia War". "It also removed references to other dark chapters of the war, such as the "Rape of Nanking," deemed too disturbing for middle-school students to read.
Koizumi's decision to visit the Yasukuni shrine, albeit two days ahead of the emotion-laden anniversary of the end of WWII, came on the heels of still-simmering relations with Japan's neighbors over the textbooks.
Yesterday in Seoul, where South Koreans marked their liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonization, President Kim Dae Jung said that Koizumi's visit only sowed mistrust. But he acknowledged that some Japanese disagreed with the visit.
"To our disappointment ... some people in Japan are attempting to distort history, casting dark clouds over Korea-Japan relations again," Mr. Kim said in a nationally televised speech. "Many conscientious Japanese citizens watched with apprehension the distortion of history and their prime minister's paying tribute at the controversial war shrine.
"How can we make good friends with people who try to forget and ignore the many pains they inflicted on us?" Kim said. "How can we deal with them in the future with any degree of trust? Those are questions that we have about the Japanese."
Tadae Takubo, a leading member of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform - known as the Tsukuru Kai - says that the textbook merely balances out a distorted view of history and presents a more appropriate picture for young students.
"We write about the fact that there is this kind of [comfort] women during the war, but is it proper for 13- or 14-year-old girls to read this kind of book?" he asks in a recent interview.
"We're not pretending to hide the fact of comfort women during the war but we are saying that this is not an issue for middle school," he adds. "This is a common phenomenon, yet only Japan is to be blamed? That is not good, and that is the spirit of the book."
Adds Takubo, a professor at Kyorin University: "Now the Japanese people are moving to a healthy nationalism, a normalization. It is not an extreme nationalism."
Whatever it is called, it is an influence - perhaps a mood - that many here seem keen to stifle.
"Since the textbook issue came to the public's attention, people realized it was a bad idea for the education board to choose a textbook that states pros and cons of the aggressive war and the colonization of the Asian countries," says Hisao Ishiyama, director of the History Educational Conference of Japan. "I think this is why the Tsukuru Kai's textbooks are not being adopted," he adds. "Until now, the people did not know what the Tsukuru Kai were thinking. But since they learned what was in the textbook, they thought that this is terrible, and not just those who have children or the educators, but everyone has turned against it."