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In Textbook Fight, Japan Leaders Seek to Recast History (NYT)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other nationalists want history textbooks to nurture patriotism among schoolchildren.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other nationalists want history textbooks to nurture patriotism among schoolchildren.

TAKETOMI, Japan — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government has begun to pursue a more openly nationalist agenda on an issue that critics fear will push the country farther from its postwar pacifism: adding a more patriotic tone to Japan’s school textbooks.

The proposed textbook revisions have drawn less outcry abroad than Mr. Abe’s visit on Thursday to a shrine that honors war dead, including war criminals from World War II. However, though Mr. Abe’s supporters argue that changes are needed to teach children more patriotism, liberals warn that they could undercut an antiwar message they say has helped keep Japan peaceful for decades.

“Prime Minister Abe is feeling the heat from his political base, which feels betrayed that he has not pursued a more strongly right-wing agenda,” said Nobuyoshi Takashima, a professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa who has studied the politics of textbooks. “Classrooms are one place where he can appease ultraconservatives by taking a more firmly nationalist stance.”

Mr. Abe and the nationalists have long argued that changes in the education system are crucial to restoring the country’s sense of self, eroded over decades when children were taught what they call an overly negative view of Japan’s wartime behavior.

The latest efforts for change started slowly, but have picked up speed in recent weeks.

In October, Mr. Abe’s education minister ordered the school board here in Taketomi to use a conservative textbook it had rejected, the first time the national government has issued such a demand. In November, the Education Ministry proposed new textbook screening standards, considered likely to be adopted, that would require the inclusion of nationalist views of World War II-era history.

This month, a government-appointed committee suggested a change that would bring politics more directly into education: putting mayors in charge of their local school districts, a move that opponents say would increase political interference in textbook screening. And just days ago, an advisory committee to the Education Ministry suggested hardening the proposed new standards by requiring that textbooks that do not nurture patriotism be rejected.

The moves come at a time when China is asserting its growing strength, directly challenging Japanese territorial claims and its standing as a regional power. The proposed educational changes are the latest that nationalists in both countries have pushed and that some fear will, over time, harden views and deepen tensions between Asia’s two strongest countries.

The history issue may also be fraught with political danger for Mr. Abe, who had initially focused on the economy rather than an ultraconservative agenda.

He has already seen his popularity levels fall since the recent passage of a secrecy bill that some local media criticized as a throwback to wartime censorship laws. And a battle over textbooks helped drive Mr. Abe from power in 2007 after less than a year the last time he was in office; in that case, his government tried to delete mention of the Japanese military’s forcing Okinawan civilians to commit mass suicide during the war.

But at least so far, the latest efforts have engendered little backlash from the public, a reflection, teachers say, of increasing anxieties about China’s more confrontational stance toward Japan.

The new screening standards proposed by the education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, a longtime advocate for teaching patriotism, require that elementary, junior high and high school textbooks give a “balanced picture” of disputed historical facts.

In an interview, ministry officials said that in practice this would require that textbooks include viewpoints of nationalist scholars on two highly contested historical issues. One is the death toll of the 1937 massacre in Nanking of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers that the Chinese government says stands at 300,000, a figure many Japanese scholars see as grossly exaggerated.

Textbooks would also be required to state that there is still a dispute about whether the Japanese Army played a direct role in forcing so-called comfort women from Korea and elsewhere to provide sex to its soldiers, even though most foreign historians say the brothels could not have been run without the military’s cooperation.

Educators worry that the vague wording of the standards could lead to more widespread changes in tone.

The suggested changes follow years of nationalist attempts — long backed by Mr. Abe — to whittle away at negative depictions of Japan’s wartime activities. Those who oppose textbook revisions say they are beginning to see the contours of a new strategy: forcing change at the local level that has sometimes failed at the national level.

Taketomi, a township of eight tiny islands that had been best known for its water-buffalo-drawn carts and placid coral lagoons, appears to have become ground zero for that battle.

The trouble began two years ago, when a newly elected conservative mayor on the neighboring island of Ishigaki appointed a new head of a local education district who selected a ninth-grade social studies textbook published by a right-wing company. Taketomi, whose school system is part of that district, immediately rejected the book for what its teachers called overly revisionist content, including the portrayal of the antiwar Constitution as an alien document imposed by Allied occupiers who wanted to keep Japan weak.

Replacing the postwar Constitution has been a careerlong goal of Mr. Abe’s.

Taketomi’s school board voted that its ninth graders, who this year number 32, would keep using the current text, which praises the Constitution and the pacifist message that it enshrines.

At first, the national government ignored the quiet insurrection. But since Mr. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party returned to power last year, analysts say members of his government have appeared increasingly determined to make an example of Taketomi in their campaign to roll back what they call an excessively left-leaning tilt in education.

So far, Taketomi has refused to bend to the central government’s demand that it follow the district’s orders. The town’s school superintendent, Anzo Kedamori, says the conservative book fails to teach children the hatred of war that his generation learned from bitter experience. During the Battle of Okinawa, hundreds of people in Taketomi perished when Japanese soldiers forced them to evacuate into malaria-ridden jungles.

“We have an obligation to teach the horrors of war to future generations,” said Mr. Kedamori, 72, who remembers watching playmates die while shivering with malarial fever.

Mr. Kedamori and other local educators say rightists in the Abe government are targeting Taketomi to score a politically symbolic victory in a small corner of Okinawa, long a bastion of antimilitary sentiments. Members of the governing party counter that Taketomi is breaking the law by refusing to obey the district’s decision and that it is Taketomi’s school board, led by a leftist teachers union, that is imposing its ideological agenda.

“This is not about going back to militarism, but just teaching the love of country that is normal in the United States and other nations,” said Hiroyuki Yoshiie, a governing party lawmaker.

The proposal to put mayors in charge of their local school districts, analysts say, is a further attempt to bring Taketomi to heel, but it could also serve what critics see as a larger agenda. They say empowering sympathetic local leaders will allow the nationalists to adopt more nationalistic textbooks that have so far fallen flat.

Ikuhosha, the publisher of the conservative textbook chosen by the district, provides only 4 percent of the 2.5 million history and social studies books used nationally by grades seven to nine, according to the Education Ministry. By contrast, Tokyo Shoseki, the publisher of Taketomi’s antiwar textbook, prints more than half of the school books used nationwide.

“The conservatives want to use Taketomi as a manual for imposing Ikuhosha textbooks on other districts,” said Toshio Ohama, a former head of the Okinawa prefectural teachers union.

Mr. Kedamori, Taketomi’s superintendent, said the town lacked the resources for a prolonged battle with the national government, but he vowed not to give in.

“Why can’t they leave us alone,” he said, “to teach the value of peace to our children?”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/world/asia/japan-fights-a-political-battle-using-history-texts.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=asia

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