Statements like the mayor of Osaka asserting that "comfort women" played a necessary role for Japanese troops during World War II, the mayor of Nagoya denying that there were any atrocities comitted by Japanese troops in Nanjing, or senior Japanese lawmakers' frequent visits to controversial Yakusuni shrine have led many commentators to conclude that the country has still not come to grips with the war crimes its army committed throughout Asia during World War II. In particular, Japanese history textbooks have been singled out for whitewashing the country's wartime record.
But a comparative study of textbooks by Stanford's Daniel Sneider published in Asia-Pacific Review says this image is a little misleading. While Japanese textbooks often seem to be deliberately trying to avoid making moral judgments, they do a pretty good job of conveing the facts:
Nonetheless, Japanese textbooks do offer a clear, if somewhat implicit, message: the wars in Asia were a product of Japan’s imperial expansion, orchestrated by the Japanese military in an attempt to resolve Japan’s post World War I economic crisis. The textbooks also leave little doubt that the decision to go to war with the United States was a disastrous mistake that in?icted a terrible cost on the nation and its civilian population. Indeed, that basic narrative in the most widely used Japanese textbooks is what prompted revisionist critics to author their own textbooks to correct what was seen as a “masochistic” view of modern Japan.
Contrary to popular belief, Japanese textbooks by no means avoid some of the most controversial wartime moments. The widely used textbooks contain accounts, though not detailed ones, of the massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing in 1937 by Japanese forces.
The textbooks tend to re?ect the arguments among Japanese about this event including the issues of the numbers of victims and to what degree the massacre was an organized punishment, with racial overtones, of the Chinese...They reject the denial school of Japanese historiography but they also do not accept the claims of a pre-organized plan for murder.
According to Sneider, the textbooks generally address the comfort women issue, though often treat it as an afterthought. Whether or not this treatment is adequate, Sneider contrasts it favorably with the history of the wartime years provided in Chinese textbooks, which are generally "deeply imbued with the didactic themes of the patriotic education campaign."
It's not so much that Japan has a case of historical amnesia, the article argues, but that the "Japanese war memory is heavily contested ground within the country" with revisionists generally associated with the political right seeking to justify or downplay the country's actions during the war and progressives taking an overall pacifist position. Sneider feels the studied neutrality of Japanese textbooks is an attempt to avoid taking a strong stance on either side.
Though given the public statements taken by the current minister of education, it does seem like the revisionists may be gaining the upper hand.
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