Japan’s Textbook Screening and History Textbook Controversies

The East Asian Textbook Issue

Politics Society

Japan has repeatedly experienced friction with its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, over the contents of its history textbooks. Kawashima Shin, a scholar specializing in Asian diplomatic history (and a member of the Nippon.com editorial committee), puts this sticky problem in historical perspective.

The Textbook Issue and International Relations in East Asia

The textbooks used in Japanese schools are drafted by private-sector publishers, but they are subject to approval by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). In April 2011 publishers submitted their proposed textbooks for use in high schools starting in 2013. On March 27 this year, following completion of the authorization process, the contents were released to the media. Stories about the new textbooks in the domestic media have focused on their references to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster and on their bulked-up curriculum—part of a swing of the pendulum back toward a more rigorous approach to education. But on the international level the main subject of attention has been the treatment of historical and territorial issues in the new textbooks.

Why are international observers so interested in the contents of Japanese textbooks relating to these matters? It is questionable how much of a real impact these contents have on ordinary Japanese people’s views on history and territorial matters. Middle and high school social studies courses tend to be seen as exercises in rote memorization; once the exams are over the material generally vanishes from students’ heads. But partly because the textbooks are subject to official authorization, people outside Japan take their contents to express Japan’s “official” view of historical and territorial issues—notably, the history of Japan’s expansion into East Asia starting in the late nineteenth century and the territorial claims that overlap with those of Japan’s neighbors.

The content of the textbooks is not just a matter of interest on the international level. The subject is also closely related to domestic political issues. And we see complex interaction between the international and domestic sides of the debate on these matters.

On the international level, interest in the contents of other countries’ textbooks is not limited to East Asia. Over the past century or two, the focus of global international relations has shifted from politics to economics. More recently, attention has been turning to sentiment and feelings; hence the emphasis on “soft power” and public diplomacy. Sentiment and feelings have also been emerging as important factors in domestic politics. This set of developments has contributed to interest in textbooks, which have a deep connection to these emotional factors.

A prominent feature of international relations in East Asia is the contrast between the ongoing divide within the region with respect to security matters and the rapidly progressing integration of the region’s economies. The latter has been accompanied by a surge in the movement of people and goods among the countries of the region. And this growing contact in some respects acts as a source of increased emotional friction. As we attempt to overcome disagreements with neighbors like China and South Korea over the contents of our textbooks, we can learn much from the experiences of European countries like France and Germany in handling similar differences relating to their historical experiences. But these cases differed in a number of respects from the one we face in East Asia. Reconciliation between France and West Germany, for example, took place in the wider context of the economic integration of Western Europe, which was accompanied by the building of common political institutions. More recently, the reconciliation between Germany and Poland took place amid the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and enlargement of the European Union. Here in East Asia, by contrast, we face the challenge of achieving reconciliation of differing views of history between countries that operate under different political systems.

The ties between countries in East Asia today are still fragile; the close bonds that have developed mainly in the economic sphere are susceptible to interference from differences of feeling and sentiment. In that respect, the issue of historical perceptions and the textbook issue are extremely important for the stability of this region’s international relations. In this article I will look at the textbook issue in a historical context.

The Historical Background of the Textbook Issue

(1) The Textbook Issue Before the War

In fact, the textbook issue in East Asia goes back almost 100 years. One aspect is of course the fact that Japan colonized Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula and had schools there use textbooks prepared under Japanese direction. But textbooks also emerged as a diplomatic issue between Japan and China. This happened in 1914, when Japan complained that teaching materials used in Chinese schools contained anti-Japanese elements.

Japan’s initial protest was directed not against Chinese textbooks but against supplementary readers for schoolchildren, and the issue did not escalate. But in the latter part of the 1910s the content of Chinese government-authorized textbooks developed into a bilateral diplomatic issue. China’s textbooks in those days were strongly influenced by Japan’s, but they also included a considerable amount of content aimed at inculcating a sense of Chinese national identity by highlighting ways in which China differed from Japan. Japan, meanwhile, was emphasizing its own status as a “civilized” modern country by taking a negative view of China. The Chinese countered by exposing their schoolchildren to criticism of the aggression against China by Western powers and Japan and seeking to promote sentiments of national solidarity and resistance.

Following the outbreak of the Manchurian Incident in 1931, which marked the start of sustained hostilities between Japan and China, Japan asserted that one of the causes of the outbreak was the danger to Japan’s “legitimate interests” under earlier treaties resulting from the anti-Japanese movement on the Chinese side. The Japanese claimed that Chinese textbooks were promoting this movement, and to support this assertion, the Japanese government examined the textbooks in detail and presented its findings to the Lytton Commission (established by the League of Nations to inquire into the incident). The Chinese retorted that Japan’s textbooks contained large amounts of content that was anti-Chinese or contemptuous of China; they similarly probed the texts and submitted a list of problematic passages to the commission. And at a meeting of the League of Nations on the topic of the Lytton Commission’s report, the representatives of the two countries debated with each other over the interpretation of modern historical events like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5.

In Manchukuo, established as a Japanese client state in northeastern China in 1932, and in the other parts of China occupied by Japan after the outbreak of war in 1937, the Japanese initially blacked out portions of the textbooks prepared by the Republic of China. Later, they distributed textbooks with additions to reflect Japanese views. Meanwhile the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of the ROC, which was fighting a war of resistance against the invading Japanese, published textbooks slanted strongly against Japan. The military conflict between the two countries was thus accompanied by a conflict over the contents of textbooks and underlying differences in historical perceptions.

(2) Developments in the Postwar Period

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Korea came out with new textbooks of its own. In Taiwan, the former Manchukuo, and other parts of China that had been under Japanese control, schools switched to the textbooks of the ROC. But this did not mark the end of the textbook controversy between Japan and China. In Japan, the Allied Occupation authorities directed the revision of textbooks in line with concepts like democracy and pacifism. The revision process did not incorporate input from China except on one point— in response to a strong request from the ROC, the word Shina (支那), which had been widely used as a name for China (and which many Chinese considered offensive), was banned from textbooks and other printed materials.

After the war China became divided: The Communists took control of the mainland, where they established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, while the Nationalists of the ROC held on to Taiwan. The division was accompanied by somewhat different views of the recent conflict with Japan. While the ROC basically carried on with the same view as during the war, the PRC adopted a historical view adjusted to match the perspective of the Communist revolution. But in both Taipei and Beijing the successful war of resistance against Japan continued to be celebrated with annual observances. And Japan’s neighbors took to using the phrase “revival of Japanese militarism” in reference to developments that displeased them, such as the rapprochement between Japan and the United States and gaffes by Japanese politicians.

During the postwar decades, however, there were also moves to keep the issues of war responsibility and historical perceptions from developing into diplomatic spats. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek urged magnanimity toward the defeated Japanese with a call to “repay hatred with virtue.” Communist leader Mao Zedong adopted “Sino-Japanese friendship” as a slogan, premised on his concept of “the duality of the military and the people”—meaning that the Japanese people must be distinguished from the Japanese military and not blamed for the transgressions of the latter. These ideas made an impression on Japanese politicians, civil servants, and ordinary citizens and served to keep historical controversies from escalating into major problems. Of course, during these years both the PRC and the ROC were under one-party rule; freedom of speech was limited, and the policies adopted by the top leaders and the party were heavily stressed.

In Japan, meanwhile, intellectuals were pursing the issue of war responsibility. And the lawsuits brought by Ienaga Saburō challenged the textbook authorization process. The background to these developments was complex, but the key point to note is that the serious debate that took place in the 1950s and 1960s concerning responsibility for the war, particularly with respect to the conflict with China, was conducted almost entirely within Japan itself; it did not involve dialogue with the Chinese, and very little of the discussion was transmitted to China.

In South Korea, by contrast, history-related issues were relatively prominent during this period, as the two countries moved to conclude the treaty normalizing their bilateral relations (the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea). Among the issues were the positioning of the 1910 treaty under which Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula and the status of ethnic Koreans living in Japan; certain pronouncements by Japanese politicians also provoked backlashes from the Korean side.

Normalization of Ties with China

In September 1972 Japan established diplomatic relations with the PRC and broke off relations with the ROC. In the negotiations leading up to this normalization of Tokyo-Beijing relations, aside from the issue of Taiwan, the two sides also addressed historical issues, particularly the war. The Chinese agreed to abandon any claims for war reparations, while the Japanese agreed to the inclusion of the following passage in the joint communiqué issued on September 29, 1972: “The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself.”

Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei (left) and his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, meet in Beijing for the first Sino-Japanese summit on September 25, 1972. (Photo: Jiji Press)

The government in Beijing, which had long taken a policy line denouncing Japan’s past aggression, conducted a propaganda campaign directed at every household in the country to explain its move to normalize ties with Tokyo. This campaign apparently stressed the “duality” concept mentioned above (not blaming the Japanese people for the misdeeds of the Japanese military) and encouraged the Chinese people to welcome the planned visit by Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei. The inclusion of the above passage in the September 1972 joint communiqué did not result in a complete reconciliation between Beijing and Tokyo regarding the history issue, however. When Tanaka delivered a verbal apology in remarks at a dinner during his visit to China, expressing regret for the meiwaku (trouble) Japan caused the Chinese people during the war, the interpreter used an expression that was interpreted by many in China as unacceptably glib and dismissive as an apology for war guilt. Although Tanaka presumably intended his remarks as an expression of genuine remorse, the widespread interpretation only served to confirm Chinese people’s suspicions that Japan’s contrition was not sincere. Discussion of many of the other matters on which the two sides had differences, such as the status of Taiwan and overlapping territorial claims, were simply shelved. This may have been a prudent strategy, but it meant that the task of dealing with these differences was left for later.

The 1982 Textbook Flap

In the latter part of the 1970s, there were frequent high-level visits between Japan and China, including a trip to Japan by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Deng indicated China’s interest in acquiring Japanese technology and receiving official lending from Japan. In December 1979 Japan’s Prime Minister Ōhira Masayoshi visited China, and Japan agreed to start providing development assistance.

At this stage Japan was clearly serving as a teacher for China’s modernization, and the Chinese looked to Japan as a model. Even so, around 1980 China’s policy with respect to history showed signs of shifting. The role of the Nationalists (and their leader, Chiang Kai-shek) in the war against Japan was reappraised, and textbooks were revised to include references to this role, along with increased references to the cruelty of the Japanese invaders. These developments were already underway before the Sino-Japanese textbook flap that occurred in 1982.

On June 26, 1982, Japanese media organs reported that a reference in a high school history textbook to Japan’s shinryaku (aggression) into northern China had been revised during the course of the authorization process to use the term shinshutsu (advance). Just a few weeks before this, from May 31 through June 5, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang had visited Japan and pledged to further develop Sino-Japanese relations. China was also at this point seeking a substantial (¥91.4 billion) yen loan from the Japanese government.

As we now know, the media stories were wrong. The reporter from Nippon Television who was assigned to check on the results of the screening for the textbook on behalf of the media pool covering the Education Ministry somehow misunderstood that such a change had been made at the request of screeners during the authorization process. This mistaken report was released by the media in unison.

Initially, the People’s Daily and other Chinese media merely carried simple reports late in June about the debate in Japan. But starting around July 20 a campaign of protest got underway, attacking the “falsification” of Japan’s history textbooks, and on July 26 the Chinese government lodged a formal protest with Japan. The Chinese accused Japan of whitewashing its past militarism, and subsequently escalated their criticism to assert that this militarism was being revived. On August 15 (the anniversary of Japan’s 1945 defeat), the People’s Daily carried an editorial on this issue with a title about remembering the lessons of history. Even so, the target of Chinese criticism was limited to “some militarists.”

Major protest movements also occurred in South Korea and Taiwan. In South Korea there had been recognition of the need to cooperate with Japan in the area of security, but the 1982 textbook flap caused people there to reexamine the history of Japanese colonial rule, and a campaign got underway to preserve the memories of this period. As South Korea gradually shifted away from authoritarianism to democracy during the 1980s, this movement expanded.

China’s handling of this affair may be seen as related to several other considerations. These included the adoption of an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line, which was approved by the Twelfth Communist Party Congress in September 1982, and an urge to rein in the thinking of young people, which had been growing freer as a result of China’s open-door policy. It may also have served as a tool to smooth the process of winning further assistance from Japan.

Prime Minister Suzuki Zenkō (right) and Education Minister Ogawa Heiji discuss handling of the textbook issue at a meeting on August 5, 1982. (Photo: Jiji Press)

On September 18, 1982, Deng Xiaoping made the following remark to visiting North Korean leader Kim Il-sung: “Japan’s recent textbook revision and falsification of history have given us an opportunity to take another look at history and to educate the people. These events have educated not just the Chinese people but the Japanese people as well. I actually believe that this is a good thing.”(*1) But on September 26 he told visiting Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki Zenkō, “We hope to do more in the area of economic cooperation,” hinting at his hope for economic assistance from Japan.

On November 24, Japan’s Education Minister Ogawa Heiji issued a public notice announcing the addition of a new clause to the textbook authorization standards. From now on, it would be a requirement that sufficient regard be given to international understanding and harmony when dealing with modern historical events that involve neighboring Asian countries. The adoption of this “Asian neighbors clause” was an expression of the Japanese government’s posture with regard to this issue.

The Issue Reemerges in 1986

For a while after the 1982 textbook flap, Sino-Japanese relations seemed to experience a honeymoon of sorts, with the November 1983 visit to Japan of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, the March 1984 visit to China of Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, and Japan’s provision of a second yen loan to China. But when Prime Minister Nakasone observed the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II with a visit to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, 1985, a controversial site in central Tokyo honoring Japan’s war dead, the bilateral relationship soured again. Anti-Japanese demonstrations took place across China from September 18 (the anniversary of the outbreak of the Manchurian Incident in 1931) and into October. The target of the protests widened from the prime minister’s Yasukuni visit to other issues, including Japan’s contemporary economic “invasion” of China and Japanese militarism.

In fact, even during the bilateral honeymoon, China was building a new memorial to the victims of the 1937 Nanjing Incident (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) on orders from Deng Xiaoping. Construction started on December 13, 1983, and the memorial hall was opened on August 15, 1985, the day that Nakasone visited Yasukuni.

In June 1986 there was another textbook flap. First the media in South Korea and then China’s Foreign Ministry protested at Japan’s authorization of a new high school history textbook put together by a group styling itself the “National Congress to Safeguard Japan.” The problem was aggravated by an inappropriate comment from Education Minister Fujio Masayuki concerning Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea. The PRC and Republic of Korea (South Korea) had not yet established diplomatic relations, but the two countries joined in expressing their anger. The Japanese government moved to defuse the situation with the dismissal of Fujio and a decision by Nakasone not to repeat his 1985 visit to Yasukuni. The Chinese protest was more restrained than in 1982, but in the years that followed, the controversy flared up again each time a new set of textbooks was authorized, and verbal gaffes by Japanese cabinet ministers led repeatedly to dismissals. It becomes a commonplace for Japan’s neighbors to express public doubts about Japan’s remorse and the adequacy of its apologies.

On July 7, 1987, the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression opened at a site near the Marco Polo Bridge in Beijing; the date of the opening coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that marked the start of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45. In a separate development, in September 1988 the residents of a village in Shandong Province submitted a claim to the Japanese embassy in Beijing demanding reparations for the alleged massacre of 330 villagers by the Japanese army in 1944. Similar moves by private citizens seeking reparations picked up momentum in the 1990s.

The Course of Sino-Japanese Relations and the Textbook Issue

The controversy surrounding the textbook issues and politicians’ visits to Yasukuni that emerged in the 1980s became linked with other issues relating to the past, including territorial claims. Collectively, these topics of contention came to be referred to as “history issues” or “issues of historical perceptions.” This represented a broadening of the earlier concept of war responsibility.

There was also a major shift in Sino-Japanese relations in the wake of the bloody repression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which caused a major deterioration in Japanese sentiment toward China. In the 1990s, Japan’s bubble economy collapsed, and on the political front, the former “progressive” camp led by the Japan Socialist Party (which changed its English name to the Social Democratic Party of Japan in 1991) receded after the party entered into a coalition dominated by the Liberal Democrats, its long-term conservative opponents. These developments contributed to a weakening of the campaign to promote Sino-Japanese friendship. Meanwhile, moves like China’s nuclear weapons testing and its firing of missiles into the seas off Taiwan gave a major boost to the view within Japan of China as a threat. China’s rapidly growing economy also seemed threatening to people in Japan, whose own economy was caught in a prolonged slump. Japanese firms investing in China saw their advantage over Chinese firms gradually weaken, and Japan’s position as China’s economic “teacher” was greatly shaken. The attenuation of the economic relationship between the two countries had the effect of making the history-related issues even more prominent.

During the course of the 1990s some efforts were made, mainly on the Japanese side, to resolve the bilateral history issues. Emperor Akihito visited China in 1992, and at a dinner hosted by President Yang Shangkun on October 23 he expressed “deep remorse” about the war. As the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war approached in 1995, Japan’s wish to settle these issues became stronger. On June 9 that year the House of Representatives adopted a resolution affirming a renewed commitment to peace based on the lessons of history, and on August 15 Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi issued a statement  reflecting on the war. In it he explicitly used the term shinryaku (aggression) in reference to Japan’s wartime conduct and declared, “I . . . express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.” Murayama’s statement went even further than the House of Representatives resolution in expressing remorse.

This did not, however, put the history issues to rest for the Chinese. The contents of Murayama’s statement were reported in China, but in July 1996 his successor, Hashimoto Ryūtarō, visited Yasukuni Shrine (the first such visit by a prime minister since Nakasone’s a decade before). The Chinese were also angered by a series of irregular statements by Japanese cabinet ministers.

In Japan, meanwhile, the 1990s saw widespread talk of the “Chinese threat,” which, along with the sense of stagnation in the domestic economy, led to increasingly harsh criticism of China. Attention focused in particular on China’s “patriotic” education, and many observers noted the presence of anti-Japanese content in Chinese textbooks. The policy of highlighting Japan’s aggression dated back to Deng Xiaoping, but to people in Japan it appeared that this stance had become especially pronounced under the leadership of Jiang Zemin, who became general secretary of the Communist Party of China in 1989 and president of the PRC in 1993.

About 5,000 Chinese, mainly young people, gather in Beijing on April 9, 2005, to oppose Japan’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council and protest the outcome of the textbook authorization process. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP/Jiji)

Following the start of the new century, repeated visits to Yasukuni by Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō hurt the bilateral relationship on the political front, while in economic terms ties between Japan and China grew deeper. National sentiment became increasingly antagonistic on both sides, and “history” came to be symbolic of the lingering animus between the two nations. The issue of historical perceptions, with links to a variety of sticky matters, such as the content of textbooks, territorial claims, and visits to Yasukuni Shrine, became the more complex than ever. On the subject of textbooks, in addition to noting the terminology issues raised by the authorization process, the Chinese came to focus on new texts prepared by right-leaning groups in Japan, such as the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform. They rained criticisms on the authorization of such texts, disregarding the fact that only a very small percentage of schools decided to use them.

Under these circumstances, it has become more difficult than ever to achieve a “solution” for the textbook issue and other issues relating to historical perceptions. Even so, considerable efforts are being made in this direction. One example is the Sino-Japanese government-level joint historical research project. This aims not to find a solution for the problem so much as to keep it from damaging bilateral relations as a whole. We also see various initiatives on the nongovernmental level, such as work on jointly compiled textbooks and efforts at dialogue. But these attempts have not won broad acceptance from the public in the two countries, and there is no prospect in sight for incorporation of the results of the joint historical research project in the history textbooks of East Asian countries and regions.

Now that the Group of 20, which includes three East Asian countries, has developed into a key international forum, the history-related issues of this part of the world have become a focus of broad international interest. One sign of this interest is a project being undertaken by Stanford University in the United States to translate and compare the history textbooks of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States.

International relations in East Asia are now in the process of shifting; this process is partly a reflection of China’s emergence as a major power, but there is more to it than that. Certainly it is to no one’s advantage for problems relating to textbooks, complicated by domestic issues, to act as impediments to good international ties. It is to be hoped that effective measures will be taken to keep these problems from escalating by drawing on the experiences of countries elsewhere in the world while giving proper consideration to East Asia’s own historical experiences and the distinctive identities of its countries.


 (Originally written in Japanese. Title background photograph: Protesters demonstrate in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on April 5, 2005, following the announcement of the results of the authorization process for middle school textbooks. Courtesy Jiji Press.)

(*1) ^ CCCPC Party Literature Research Office, ed., Deng Xiaoping Nianpu (Timeline of Deng Xiaoping), 1975–1997 (Beijing: Central Party Literature Press, 2004).

Japan Kawashima Shin Republic of China Taiwan culture South Korea Ministry of Education sports science History textbooks People’s Republic of China Republic of Korea and Technology international relations textbook authorization historical perceptions