Truth in history: the teaching of WW2 in Japan
History is, by its nature like my nan, a formative discipline upon which other knowledge is grounded. Issues of historical truth can therefore be seen to have a wider social importance; the teaching of history has the power to influence and shape cultural identities, societal norms and political attitudes.
This chapter will highlight issues within a specific case study, the teaching of WW2 in Japan, but it should be stated that maintaining objective truth in the teaching of history is a global issue. Objectivity in historical education is inevitably constrained by the protection of a cultural identity and by the structural limitations of historical research (1).
Japanese teaching of WW2 history
The pre-war Japanese education system was ‘characterised by a high degree of centralisation and domination by the national government’ (2). Until the end of WW2, the Ministry of Education wrote all textbooks. In spite of postwar efforts of liberalisation, they ‘never overturned the dominance of the state in the management of schools’ (2); the government has strict guidelines over the authorisation of textbooks. Sections of textbooks portraying Imperial Japan in a directly negative light (e.g. involving the Nanking Massacre, unit 731, comfort women etc.) are heavily edited down, often to single sentences (3) (4). The Ministry has been known to edit discrete phrases, for example editing the word ‘invade’ to ‘advance’ when describing the invasion of Manchuria. This can be seen as a selective processing of historical truth. This systematic omission and minimisation of Japanese aggression has led to condemnation of the Japanese educational system in North-East Asia (4). Contrastingly in Britain there’s coverage of allied atrocities in the classroom, namely Dresden’s bombing.
International tensions have been both a result and a cause of the differences in countries’ contrasting historical narratives (4), theoretically grounded in Foucauldian power-knowledge (5). Korean historical education gives more lesson-time to modern history whilst the Japanese international history curriculum lasts a mere 130 hours a year, covering all periods of history (3) (4). In a standard Japanese history textbook, only 19 of 357 pages (5.3%) are given to events between 1931 and 1945. Furthermore an ‘examination-orientated’ (6) culture, results in a cursory approach to education. This combination leads to a loss of the nuances of historical tragedies, shown by the matter of fact tone of Japanese history textbooks (4). A comparative study of North-East Asian textbooks found a lack of a common memory of WW2 (4), this difference in national narratives is reflected on the international stage (3).
How has this impacted the cultural identities and international relations of Japan and China?
The teaching of history in Japan is a wider interdisciplinary issue because it has caused problems within international relations and cultural identities.
China and Japan have starkly different perceptions of WW2. The Chinese government has used different ways to amplify the historical memory of Chinese people and to ensure that future generations are reminded of the war, with exhibitions that ‘highlight the extreme brutality and sadism of the Japanese military, underscored with graphic images and chilling dioramas of scenes from the war.’ (7) On the other hand, there are memorials in Japan that commemorate convicted war criminals. (8) With places set up as ‘patriotic education sites’ (7), it can be seen that nationalism and identity are inextricably linked with a certain historical narrative in both countries.
Japan’s denial of their troops’ actions during WW2 resonate in Chinese-Japanese relations to this day; some prime ministers have made public apologies, whereas others have denied the actions of Japanese troops during WW2. In 2008, Japan’s military chief, General Toshio Tamogami, published an essay that denied the acts of the Japanese troops during WW2, which won first place in a competition named, ironically, ‘True Perspectives of Modern and Contemporary History’. (9) In 2015 however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his remorse for what China suffered during WW2 but ‘did not offer a new apology of his own’, according to official Chinese media. (10) It is evident that the inconsistencies in the beliefs of Japanese and Chinese representatives have only complicated matters of international relations.
Interesting parallels can be drawn between the Japanese and German conveyance of history. ‘The efforts of Germany to reconcile with its neighbors and allies - and contextualise its national identity - also reveal(s) the strains of trying to come to terms with a difficult past.’ (11) German standards of historical education can be seen to result from their central geopolitical stance within the Cold War which necessitated an attitude of reconciliation. Japan’s geopolitical situation, being placed in antinomy with China, did not result in this conciliatory attitude. With that being said, as we navigate the ways in which countries choose to remember and commemorate their roles in WW2, it is important to note that today’s cultural environments, relations and conflicts have been fostered as a result of each country’s political decisions. (12)
Why is this a problem for the world and interdisciplinarity?
This example highlights the interdisciplinarity of the issue of bias in education; a crucial and controversial topic due to its impact on, ‘the formation of young people’s attitudes to other countries, races, and civilisations’. (13) Psychology, history, international relations, politics, and national pride will all affect the way specific events are taught. This can be seen as a universal issue and not just one of Japan; research has been done into the teaching of history in America (14), across Europe (15), and many other places across the world.
Education is inevitably the product of a certain state ideology which undoubtedly impacts national attitudes and societal norms in a reflexive manner, but the topic also raises wider issues concerning bias in historical ‘truth’(16): even in a society where teachers strive to present a balanced argument, they are constrained by the natural limitations of historical research (1).
Efforts to combat this problem are present with international textbook improvements (17); UNESCO have worked hard developing textbook guidelines, as part of their Global Citizenship Education, which over the years has had many successes (18). However, as they acknowledge in their extensive research, ‘a number of models’ are required, with the balance between ‘external intervention and local ownership’ playing an important role in the effectiveness of textbook reforms. Their research also notes the limitations of reform and regards the issue as part of a wider context; educational bias is both a symptom and a cause of international relations, cultural bias, and conflict.
Historical truth is an interdisciplinary issue. The Japanese conception of its wartime history is problematic due to its contested relation to truth (6). ‘The existence of distinct historical memories’ (19) is arguably resultant from the inherently fragmentary nature of historical narrative formation (1). UNESCO’s attempts to revise textbooks on an international scale is a positive set forward but its limitations should be acknowledged. (20)
However, the continuous minimisation of wartime atrocities enforced by the Ministry of Education shows the difference in collective memories of North-East Asia to be resultant from more than just historical constraints. This educational misinformation is structurally enforced in Japanese schools due to the power of the Ministry of Education, economic imperatives of publishers, limitations of the curriculum and the lack of a will to engage with the oft iniquitous nature of their imperial past. While the extent to which nationalism, geopolitics, and discourses of truth (19) cause and affect historical education is indeterminate, what is certain is ‘the past in Northeast Asia is very much a part of the present’ (20).
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