Japanese Textbook Revision and Historical Amnesia
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
Recently a number of decisions and statements have occurred with terrible ramifications for the presentation of Japanese history in Japan and abroad. Most recently, for example, the Japanese Education Ministry has removed references in government-approved middle and high school textbooks to the forced civilian suicides that occurred during the Battle of Okinawa. Concurrent with this move has been a statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in which he denied that the “comfort women” stations maintained by the Japanese Imperial Army had been “coerced.” Though he later recanted this statement and apologized after receiving a great deal of international pressure, his statement follows over a decade of work in which references to the “comfort women” have been systematically erased from these same government approved history textbooks. All told, these recent moves on the part of the Japanese government represent a trend toward “historical amnesia” on the part of the Japanese state that has served to censor and limit Japanese popular understanding of the realities of World War II.
The situation in Okinawa, for example, has been well documented by those survivors of the Battle of Okinawa. As former governor of Okinawa Masahide Ota recalls, civilians were given hand grenades by the Japanese Army and told to kill themselves rather than be taken captive. When such civilians attempted to surrender and leave the caves in which they had taken refuge, they were often shot by Japanese soldiers as deserters. Incidents such as these mentioned by survivors of the war like Oda are among the crueler aspects of Japanese history that have been recently deleted from Japanese textbooks.
As for the “comfort women” issue, the most important statement from the Japanese government on this issue came in the 1993 Kono Statement, in which then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono reported that government findings had confirmed that the government was involved in ordering the procurement of “comfort women” for use by the military, stating that:
This acknowledgement came as a great victory to the survivors of the “comfort women” system, many of whom had lived in shame and extreme hardships since the end of the war, and had overcome great reluctance to tell their story and force the Japanese government to accept their responsibility in this terrible episode in history. That Prime Minister Abe and his cabinet have even questioned such historical realities makes a mockery of these women’s experiences and does a disservice to the cause of history.
All told, the recent controversies suggest that the right-wing trend in the current Japanese administration, in keeping with Prime Minister Abe’s vision of a “beautiful country” free of war guilt and geared towards the future, seeks to obscure historical realities regarding these incredibly important issues. Indeed controversies regarding historical controversies in Japan are not new. One need only reference the right-wing Japanese Society for Textbook Reform to see that many people have been seeking to remove references to such terrible aspects of Japanese history for some time. The main difference, however, is that the current Japanese education ministry has systematically implemented many aspects of this organization’s viewpoint by deleting or limiting references to the forced suicides of Okinawa, the “comfort women,” and other issues such as the Rape of Nanking or Unit 731.
Despite these moves, however, there is a groundswell of popular movement in Japan that has sought to contest this distorted view of history. One important organization in this regards is the Violence Against Women in War – Network Japan (VAWW-Net Japan) (http://www1.jca.apc.org/vaww-net-japan*), which was instrumental in publicizing the impact of the war on the comfort women through its 2000 Women’s International Military War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery. This organization was instrumental in organizing activities aimed at urging the Japanese administration to stand by the 1993 Kono statement. In fact, for those interested in learning more about this history, there is now a historical museum in the Waseda area of Tokyo called the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (www.wam-peace.org*) that focuses on recording and promoting awareness of the “comfort women” issue. Additionally, in Kawagoe in Saitama, there is another recently opened museum called the Chukiren Memorial Peace Museum that has served to document records from Japanese soldiers who have testified on their complicity in war crimes during the occupation of China. Also, in regards to the truth of the Battle of Okinawa, visitors today can visit the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Museum (www.peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp*) or the Himeyuri Peace Museum (www.himeyuri.or.jp) to find out more about the experiences of Okinawan civilians during the war. Thus, despite the rightward trend of the Japanese administration, at the grassroots and local level there continues to be significant popular awareness of the need to oppose the erasure of historical truth.
Yet, this issue of Japan’s wartime responsibility is not something that must remain solely a matter of discussion in Japan alone. Members of the Nikkei community should and must also add their voices to this matter as a means of applying international pressure on the Japanese government to acknowledge the faults of the past. I am encouraged by the recent push by U.S. House Representative Mike Honda to pass a resolution calling on Japan to unequivocally recognize its responsibility for the “comfort women” during World War II. These moves among others are positive steps towards developing an international historical consensus on the issues at the heart of that terrible war.
* English language page available.
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