Issues: History Textbooks

The content of Japanese history textbooks has been the focus of periodic controversy in Japan and Asia for much of the post-World War II era.  Much attention has focused on the role of the Japanese government in screening school textbooks and whether the textbooks accurately portray the events leading up to and encompassing World War II.

Various scholars have argued that this textbook controversy, in its broadest terms, raises fundamental questions about the legacies of war, nationalism, Japan’s relations with the rest of Asia, and how the war is remembered by those most directly affected by it.  Also significant is the extent to which the issue is so hotly contested within Japan itself, revealing deep disagreements on the appropriate ways to remember and characterize the past. 

Under Japan’s textbook system, each public and private school selects a history textbook from a list of those authorized by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.  Textbook publishing companies first submit draft manuscripts to the Ministry, where they are reviewed by committees appointed by the Ministry in accordance with specific criteria.  The textbook companies are then given an opportunity to make revisions based on review comments, and the revised textbooks are then placed on the authorized list.   

Ienaga Saburo, a noted historian and author, challenged the legitimacy of this screening system in 1965, when he filed the first of three civil lawsuits against the Ministry of Education, charging that the process represented unconstitutional censorship and was therefore illegal.  Ienaga was reacting to the Ministry’s demands for modifications to his own draft textbook, which he believed constituted inappropriate interference with textbook content and revealed the government’s desire to downplay the 'dark side' of war.  Ultimately, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled in August 1997 on the last of Ienaga’s three suits, upholding the legality of the Ministry’s screening process but also finding that the Ministry had gone too far in requiring some changes in Ienaga’s manuscripts—for example, in dictating that references to the wartime biological warfare Unit 731 be deleted.  The Supreme Court concluded that the government should avoid, to the extent possible, involving itself with educational content.

In the summer of 1982, a number of Japanese newspapers reported that the Ministry of Education had used the textbook screening process to demand changes in history texts that amounted to a minimization of Japan’s culpability for its wartime actions.  In one widely-cited example, newspapers reported that the textbook examiners required that the word 'invasion' be changed to 'advance' in describing Japan's military actions in China in the 1930s.  The press reports, as it turned out, did not provide an accurate portrayal of events—although the Ministry had previously issued guidance to textbook authors seeking changes that would soften the portrayal of Japanese wartime actions, these were not necessarily mandatory changes.  Professor Ienaga, for example, successfully resisted the suggestion to change 'aggression' to 'advance in his textbook.      

Responding to the initial Japanese press reports, various Asian countries, notably China and South Korea, protested strongly, precipitating a 'textbook controversy' with major diplomatic consequences.  The protests, demonstrations, and warnings about the re-emergence of Japanese militarism led eventually to the issuance of a statement by Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Miyazawa Kiichi in August 1982 promising that Japan in future would pay “due attention” to the criticisms from its Asian neighbors and make revisions to its textbooks accordingly.  This in turn led to the issuance of new guidelines by the Ministry of Education for screening textbooks that recognized the need to demonstrate concern for international cooperation and understanding. 

The textbook controversy continued in 2001 as a result of the efforts of the Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho wo Tsukuru Kai (known in English as the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform) to sponsor a new textbook.  Critics have charged that the Society's textbook provides a distorted and self-serving account of Japan's colonial and wartime activities-for example, stressing Japan's efforts to modernize Korea and downplaying the brutality of the colonial experience; emphasizing Japan's war aim of liberating Asian countries from Western domination while de-emphasizing Japan's own colonial ambitions; and essentially ignoring or discounting Japanese war crimes.  The textbook's authors and defenders argue that it restores 'common sense' to the teaching of history and is intended to provide a better balance and context for understanding Japanese history-for example, by emphasizing the international context in which the colonization of Korea occurred and by eliminating the prevailing leftist bias in history textbooks.    

After revisions, the New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho) was certified by the Ministry in March 2001.  The Ministry’s authorization of this textbook for use in Japanese schools met with widespread protests in Japan, China, and North and South Korea.  It also led to the issuance of an international  scholars’ appeal, signed by many prominent historians, protesting the Society’s text as one that trampled on the values of “peace, justice, and truth”  and arguing that it was “unfit as a teaching tool.”  In the end, only a miniscule number of schools in Japan (less than one percent) adopted the controversial textbook for use during 2002-2004. 

In March 2005, the Society submitted a revised edition of its textbook, which was subsequently approved by the Ministry in April.  The textbook's approval caused the governments of South Korea and China to raise their concerns with the Japanese government and triggered popular protests in these countries and the threat of boycotts against Japanese goods.

For further works that explore this issue, please see our bibliography on the textbook controversy.

Ienaga Saburo Textbook Cases

Joint East Asia Supplementary History Textbook

English Translations of Japanese History Textbooks (JE Kaleidoscope)