Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Historical Perception and the Textbook Issue
KITAMURA Fumio / Professor at Shukutoku University

August 2, 2001
Controversy surrounding the "New History Textbook" issue is putting a strain on relations between Japan and South Korea, and China. While steady progress is being made in regional cooperation and economic integration in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia, a dark cloud of distrust and confrontation seems to be gathering over countries in the northeastern Asia.

The issue assumed serious proportions as several factors intertwined at various levels. The following are some of the factors: (1) what touched off the textbook issue; (2) what authority can the Japanese government exercise over textbook selection under the current official inspection system; (3) do South Korean and Chinese demands on the Japanese government to revise the textbooks offer an effective solution; and (4) can the issue be resolved through inter-governmental negotiations?

Needless to say, the textbook issue is essentially Japan's internal issue. And internal debate was complicated from the onset, due to a major clash of opinion concerning historical perception, on how best to hand down this country's past to the younger generation on whose shoulders the future depends. On this core issue, I must disagree with the views advocated by the "Society to Make New History Textbooks." Their historical perception would lead this country to an erroneous direction, isolating Japan in the world today which is characterized by a trend of deepening interchange and interdependence.

I will refrain from rendering a detailed critique of the fine points in the text of the "New History Textbook," in part due to space limitations. I will instead offer my opinion on the so-called "masochistic historical perception" that members of the "Society to Make New History Textbooks" have attacked with vehemence. According to the authors of the textbook in question, "history education has been distorted" because of this "masochistic historical perception." They assert that the main motive for writing the textbook was to overcome this "self-defeating historical perception" and to give the Japanese a sense of "national pride."

This being the case, discussion on this "masochistic historical perception" should be at the center of the textbook dispute. The first thing I must point out is that the term "masochistic," with its emotional overtones, has seemingly taken on a life of its own, without having undergone vigorous scrutiny. In the past, many peoples and nations have inflicted tragic pain and unbearable indignity on other peoples through colonial rule, invasion and occupation. For the offending side, facing up to its own mistakes can't possibly be described as being "masochistic" in the true sense of the word. If we are ambiguous towards the standpoint of "cruelty inflicted on others" - of the pain and humiliation we have inflicted upon others, we would be surrendering to the spell of self-centered historical perception, without ever learning from past experiences.

I currently teach international relations at a private university. Many of my students hope to take on professions that would contribute to friendly relations and mutual prosperity with our neighboring countries. Listening to their well-meaning dreams is my happiest moment. However, if they don't acquire the necessary historical perception regarding Japan's past and instead maintain their almost innocent ignorance, they won't be able to win either the trust or sympathy of the peoples in our neighboring countries. I am overcome with a morose mood whenever I consider such an unfortunate prospect.

My second point is that the comforting term of "national pride" contains a delusion that at times verges on being dangerous. It is quite possible that for Germany, there was no other period than during the Nazi years that the nation was enthralled in an uplifting sense of "national pride" of "German superiority in the world." However, that same Germany decided to atone for its past with sincerity, and to become a member of the North Atlantic community. And the trust thus gained from its neighboring countries in turn became the foundation of a new "national pride" for the Germans. Confronting past mistakes does not hurt "national pride," but becomes the first step in the creation of an even formidable "pride" geared to the future.

Having a sense of history that seeks to understand others' pain nurtures a rich imagination for understanding those who are persecuted, impoverished or oppressed in facing a world full of contradictions. Our perception of the past is inseparably linked to our perception of the present.

The creation of the "New History Textbook" was extremely regrettable. I am also seriously concerned that the phenomenon of an emergence of self-righteous, self-serving nationalism lies hidden at the bottom of this issue. Even so, under the current official inspection system, the Japanese government has no authority to order the authors and publishers to revise the content of a textbook once it has been approved by the designated process. I may be concerned about a particular historical perception, but there is no way to prevent a textbook based on that perception from being submitted before the Ministry of Science and Education for inspection, nor do I think that we should create a system that would allow us to do that. As long as we have a legal system that guarantees freedom of belief and expression, we must defend that principle of respecting freedom, even if the expected outcome is unfavorable. This is the cost we pay for maintaining a democratic system.

However, the current official inspection system is not without its problems. The main focus of the inspection process is whether there are any errors in the historical facts presented in the text. In other words, the object of examination is the written text, and almost no consideration is given to what was omitted from that text. That leaves open the possibility of "forgetting" or "ignoring" certain facts by intentionally omitting them. Thus while state power may not have a hand in intentional manipulation, it is in effect lending a hand to this "oblivion" and "neglect" towards history under the current inspection system. Herein lies the reason why South Korea and China are so vehement in their protest against the Japanese government.

Making matters short, under the current framework of related systems, diplomatic negotiations do not offer an appropriate means for resolving the textbook issue. If there is to be a solution - while it may seem to be a roundabout way - the only capital plan is to expand the forum of mutual understanding through a steadfast dialogue between citizens of the countries involved. Under the current system, the only way to resolve the distrust towards Japan held among its neighboring countries is to refrain from actually using the textbook in question in junior high school education. Already, a grassroots movement demanding rejection of the "New History Textbook" is spreading like wildfire in Japan, a sign that Japanese society continues to harbor a healthy sense of history. I earnestly hope that the people of South Korea and China will realize this fact.

The writer is Professor at Shukutoku University. He previously served as the Yomiuri Shimbun's London Bureau Chief and Senior Editor.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

北村 文夫 / 淑徳大学教授(国際関係論)

2001年 8月 2日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Historical Perception and the Textbook Issue