Distorted Textbooks: Weapons of Mass Instruction

By Jessica Jochum

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I’ll never forget when I was teaching third grade, the week before Columbus Day rolled around. Another teacher approached me – noticing my lack of cheesy bulletin boards, no doubt – and said, “I can’t believe you’re not doing a lesson on Columbus!” She wasn’t referring to a lesson on what Columbus really did. Teaching such to a group of 8 year olds would probably cause nightmares and result in angry phone calls from parents (trust me on this one). She was referring to the typical elementary lesson that says, “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue! What a swell guy!”

Altering history through education has become commonplace. Why? Textbooks. Okay, okay, textbooks aren’t solely to blame. Definitely not. But they are a factor. We’ve seen it in the whitewashing in Texas textbooks that fail to mention Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan, and in science textbooks from South Korea that exclude any mention of evolution. However, one of the most alarming cases of altering history can be found in Japanese textbooks.

But first – a brief history refresher:

Over the course of six weeks in late 1937 and early 1938, there was a mass killing of Chinese citizens at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese Imperial Army, commanded by General Matsui Iwane, seized Nanjing, China (Nanking) on December 13th, 1937. What followed was nothing short of horrendous. Between 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese were murdered, 2 and tens of thousands were raped (some sources estimate the number of rapes to be between 20,000 and 80,000).3  Following the end of World War II, Matsui and his lieutenant Tani Hisao were convicted of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal and were executed.

Since the events that took place in Nanking, controversy has erupted. There has been denial about the tragic event ever taking place. In 2012 Japanese mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, said “It is true that a considerable number of people died in the course of battle. However such a thing as so-called Nanjing Massacre is unlikely to have taken place.” He insisted that there were only acts of combat that occurred, not mass murders or rapes. 4

This denial has made its way into Japanese textbooks. In Japan, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) authorizes any and all textbooks used through a rigid screening process. As early as 1955, the Ministry of Education (simply known as MOE at this time, the name changed later to MEXT) in Japan banned one third of the current textbooks. 5 The Sino-Japanese War was entirely removed from its textbooks. In the 1970s, two out of the six textbooks mentioned the Nanking massacre, but had the number of those killed down to only 42,000. 6 However, by 1978 the Ministry of Education removed the number of those killed out of all textbooks. The textbooks have been revised over and over again to further downplay their involvement in Nanking.

In the mid/late 1950’s, the Ministry of Education stated in regards to a textbook that did not put Japan in the best lighting:

“It is not good only to see Japan’s past war(s) as imperialist war(s). It is inadequate to say that Japan ruled China and made it miserable.

[The textbook] says, ‘Our country inflicted immeasurable suffering and damage on various Asian nations, especially during the Pacific War.’ . . . Eliminate this description, since a view even exists that [Japan] provided various Asian nations the chance for independence [from their Western colonizers] through the Pacific War.

[The textbook], in its treatment of the war, describes it as if Japan were unilaterally bad; it is not grounded in understanding of world history such as the international situation of the time.” 7

While the Japanese government doesn’t supervise the writing of the textbooks, they still have a major say in what gets published, and what doesn’t, through MEXT. Approved texts often require revisions until deemed satisfactory. This approval process and the textbooks authorized as a result has consequently led to several controversies and court cases. There have been three major attacks on Japanese textbooks since the implementation of the textbook screening process in the late 1940s. The major attacks occurred in 1955, in the early 80’s, and mid 90’s.

Additionally, scholar and textbook editor Saburo Ienaga sued the Ministry of Education three times in 1965, 1966, and 1982. The 1982 lawsuit was settled in 1997 in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ienaga, declaring that the Ministry of Education’s censoring of certain events, including the sexual assaults in Nanking, were unconstitutional. This ruling was a huge step forward for textbooks including a full, uncensored history. After the ruling, seven major textbooks were published in 1997. All seven mentioned the massacre, and five reported the death toll of Nanking at 300,000 (the other two had the number at 200,000 – a big improvement from the earlier 42,000 statistic). 8

This is an ongoing battle. In 2001, more textbooks were published that were met with much criticism. One text in particular, the Tsukurukai history textbook, sparked even greater outrage than the rest. This text “questions the actuality of the Massacre of Nanjing, and erases from its records any mention of the Japanese military sexual slavery system, which was one of the largest war violence in the 20th century”. 9 The Chinese and Korean governments demanded changes be made to the text, and a two day conference was held, called “The Asian Solidarity Conference on Textbook Issues in Japan—No! To the Distorted History Textbook”. 10

The influence of textbooks is not unlike the power of archives. Archivists hold immense power (and according to Uncle Ben in Spiderman, or Voltaire or Churchill depending on your sources, with great power comes great responsibility). They get to pick and choose what’s worthy of archiving, and what goes out with the garbage. Archivists have a huge hand in what gets remembered, and what becomes a part of our history. Textbooks have a similar control. They offer a particular narrative of history that may or may not be entirely accurate. But textbooks aren’t like a Wikipedia article that the general public knows not to trust entirely. Textbooks offer a sense of authority to its readers. Textbooks, from a reader’s perspective, don’t need to be questioned. It is assumed they are unbiased and factual – regardless of if they actually are.

There seems to be an impossible balance between reporting history as it actually occurred, and reporting history as those “in charge” would like it to be remembered. Textbooks influence identity – As you read through the history books of your country, you construct an identity of the country, and of yourself as a citizen of that country. The impact of a textbook on our histories cannot be underestimated.

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Jessica Jochum

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