Japan’s teaching on war doesn’t deserve bad press

SPECIAL ON HISTORY TEXTBOOKS / Japan’s teaching on war doesn’t deserve bad press

For the past three decades, Japanese high school history textbooks have got bad press abroad. Some foreign critics say they do not pay enough attention to Japan’s responsibility for the outbreak of the Asia-Pacific War or to the suffering the Japanese military wrought in occupied areas. Others argue that their content has become more and more nationalistic.

The Divided Memories and Reconciliation project of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University belies this criticism.

The project compares the treatment of the wartime and immediate postwar periods (1931-51) in Asia in the most widely circulated high school textbooks concerning national or world history recently used or currently in use in Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, as well as the United States.

Far from being nationalistic, Japanese textbooks seemed the least likely to stir patriotic passions. They do not celebrate war, do not stress the importance of the military, and tell no tales of battlefield heroism. Instead they offer a chronicle of events without much interpretive narrative. This suits students who scavenge them for information while preparing for university entrance examinations.

To be sure, Japanese textbooks do offer an implicit message: that militaristic expansion is folly and that war inflicts terrible costs on civilians. That irritates “revisionist” right-wing critics at home, who criticize it as a “masochistic” view of modern Japan. But the war story told in Japanese history textbooks is entirely consistent with Japan’s postwar rejection of military force as an instrument of foreign policy.

The Japanese history curriculum guideline emphasizes the need to “develop friendly and cooperative relations with neighboring countries and to contribute to the peace and stability of Asia and, in turn, the world.”

By contrast, national curriculum guides in most other East Asian countries assert the promotion of national pride and national identity as the primary function of history education. The war stories told in their textbooks are clearly intended to do just that.

The stress on national pride sometimes has odd consequences. South Korean textbooks, for example, hardly mention major wartime events covered by textbooks in other countries–the outbreak of war in China in 1937, the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Instead, the South Korean textbooks focus almost exclusively on the wartime Korean resistance to Japanese colonial rule or on cultural developments in literature. In other words, the continuing national struggle for liberation is the plotline for Korean textbook narratives.

Perhaps the most passionately nationalistic war stories are to be found in Chinese textbooks. Not only are they filled with coverage of heroic military operations, they suggest that it was Chinese–and primarily Chinese Communist Party–military resistance to Japanese aggression that finally brought about Japan’s defeat. Little or no mention is made of the fighting in the Pacific or the role of the Allied powers. Nor is there any emphasis on the atomic attacks in ending the war. Mao Zedong’s call for an all-out attack on Japanese forces and the Soviet declaration of war are seen as the decisive factors.

Textbooks in both China and Taiwan describe victory in the anti-Japanese war as the end to a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialists who rode roughshod over China’s rights and interests.

“The Chinese victory in the anti-Japanese war was the first complete success that the Chinese people achieved in fighting against foreign invaders in more than a 100 years,” a recent Chinese textbook says.

The victory also is seen as marking the return of China to its historical position as a major world power. The Chinese textbooks, for example, stress that the struggle against imperialism continued in the postwar world. The new adversary was not Japan but the United States.

China, now in the vanguard of history, not only supported the establishment of “people’s democracies” all over Asia and Europe, it emerges victorious in the Korean War, thwarting the U.S. effort to turn back the tide of “progressive” forces.

Oddly enough, the U.S. textbooks offer a similar triumphalist narrative of the war. “The American Pageant,” one of the most widely used textbooks in the United States, portrays the war as a critical turning point in its maturation as an international power.

Before the war, the American people retreated from the outside world into “head-in-the-sand” isolationism. The attack on Pearl Harbor brought the realization that no nation is safe and isolation no longer possible in a world of international anarchy. The unity of the American people forged by the attack, and equally important, the economic strength of the United States, brought victory in a global struggle against fascism, dictatorship and militarism.

Echoing the triumphal tone of the Chinese textbooks, “The American Pageant” emphasizes that the victory made the United States the most powerful country in the world.

Having learned the dangers of isolationism and appeasement, Americans concluded that they must use their power responsibly in a continuing struggle against antidemocratic aggression. In the postwar world, the new aggressor is not the Axis powers but the Soviet Union. To meet this new challenge the United States not only adopted not only a containment policy to protect “American democracy and capitalism,” it also used military force to roll back Soviet aggression in Korea and elsewhere.

The language of U.S. textbooks is less blatantly nationalistic than the Chinese, but they support the country’s Cold War policies in much the same way Chinese textbooks support the triumph of the Communist Party.

The war story in “The American Pageant”” narrative is consistent with both the liberal internationalism and the conservative interventionism that governed U.S. foreign policy from former U.S. President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, to former U.S. President Richard Nixon and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And like much in American popular culture, it celebrates World War II as a “good war.”

The lack of patriotic passion in Japanese textbook treatment of the war should not surprise us. Japan, after all, lost the war. That limits opportunities to spin triumphalist war stories. What is striking about Japanese public memory of the war is the lack of consensus about its meaning. No single narrative seems to dominate. For the majority, it is remembered as a war that brought grief both to fighting men and the home front; for others, it is a war of liberation fought by brave soldiers whose struggles laid the groundwork for the postwar decolonization of Asia; and for still others, it was a cruel war of aggression for which the Japanese have not yet fully atoned.

But the low-key treatment of the war in Japanese textbooks also reflects the fact that the idea of “peace education” is taken seriously in Japan. The lesson that the war taught the Japanese was that the use of military force is not always righteous and even wise. And while the war may have ended China’s century of humiliation and the United States’ isolationism, it also ended the Japanese illusion that national pride can be based only on military power.

Duus is the William H. Bonsall Professor of Japanese History at Stanford. He is the author of numerous books on Japan, including “Modern Japan” and “The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910,” and coeditor of “The Japanese Wartime Empire.”

(Nov. 22, 2008)

SPECIAL ON HISTORY TEXTBOOKS / 5 nations, 5 different historical perspectives of war

The description of what occurred in Nanjing differs from nation to nation. The following are excerpts from the history books of five nations:



Wherever Japanese invaders went, they committed all manners of crimes: arson, homicide, rape and looting. In December 1937, Japanese armies occupied Nanjing and massacred the city’s peaceful residents, the ultimate act of human cruelty. Within six weeks, more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers in Nanjing were murdered. The means of massacre were extremely brutal. Some victims were killed by gunshot; some were bayoneted; some were buried alive; some were cremated alive.

The Japanese military commander, Tani Hisao, and his troops entered Nanjing and killed whoever they saw. At the time, numerous refugees, unarmed Chinese soldiers and wounded were crowded into the city. They were killed by Japanese soldiers maniacally shooting with machine guns, rifles and pistols. Crowds of old people, women and children were felled.

The Japanese armies also smashed their way into civilian houses and randomly killed residents who lived peacefully in Nanjing. They hauled a young man to the street, stripped his clothes, poured aqua fortis [nitric acid solution] on his body and forced him to walk until death; they tied the captured soldiers on pillars, stabbed them with awls till they became bleeding bodies, and finally thrust bayonets into their throats; they tied refugees together as targets to practice with their bayonets, and stabbed them to death; they also gang raped pregnant women, cut open their wombs and took out the embryos to play with on the top of their bayonets.

Japanese right-wing forces vigorously deny that the Japanese military committed the Nanjing Massacre–the ultimate act of human cruelty–during its invasion of China. They consider it a type of wartime behavior. What do you think of the issue?

“Modern and Contemporary Chinese History, Book One” (People’s Education Publishing House, 2005), pages 31-32.



On July 7, 1937 (Showa 12), right after the establishment of the first Fumimaro Konoe Cabinet, conflict (shototsu jiken) erupted between the Japanese and Chinese armies near the Marco Polo Bridge in the environs of Beijing (Marco Polo Bridge Incident).

An armistice was established at one point at the location, but the Konoe Cabinet yielded to military pressure and modified the original nonexpansionist policy, dispatched more troops, and expanded the front. Toward this, because the Nationalist government assumed a position of determined resistance in response, hostilities greatly exceeded Japan’s original expectations and developed into full-scale war (Sino-Japanese War).

In August, hostilities broke out in Shanghai [Second Shanghai Incident], and the flames of war (senka) spread south. In September, the Nationalist and Communist parties again formed a coalition (Second United Front), and established a national anti-Japanese united front (konichi minzoku touitsu sensen). Japan continuously committed a large army [to the area], and occupied the Nationalist government capital in Nanjing by the end of the year.

Because the Nationalist government retreated from Nanjing to Hankou and then further inland to Chongqing and persistently continued its resistance, the Sino-Japanese war became a quagmire-like drawn-out war (doronuma no yona chokisen).

Footnote: In addition to repeated looting and violence (ryakudatsu, boko) within and outside Nanjing at the time of its fall, the Imperial Japanese Army murdered (satsugai) a large number of (tasu) Chinese noncombatants (including women and children) and prisoners (Nanjing Incident). The situation in Nanjing was reported to the Army Central Command through the Foreign Ministry in the early stages [of the incident].

“Japanese History B” (Yamakawa Shuppansha, 2002), page 330.


South Korea

Within this political and social environment, the military pursued a path to militarism. The military authority strengthened its right to speak about domestic and foreign policies; while on the one hand, they also tried to overcome the difficult times by continental invasion. While Jiang Jieshi [Chiang Kai-shek] was conquering the north, Japan dispatched its army to the Shandung Province three times and disrupted his efforts. Also, after bringing on the Manchurian Incident and occupying the northeastern part of China, they established the puppet state of Manchukuo (1931). With the fortune of its success, the Japanese military engaged in an upfront war of invasion (1937). During the process, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of common people in Nanking (The Nanking Massacre).

“World History” (Keumsung, 2003), page 275



After the sparks of war were fired through the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Japanese Army proceeded to expand its military forces and prepared to invade Northern China anytime.

Commissioner Chiang [Chiang Kai-shek] of the Military Affairs Commission of the Nationalist government immediately declared: “China hopes for peace, but not to live in cowardice; we are prepared for war, but do not seek war; once the war breaks out, there will be no distinction made between north and south or old and young; all will take up responsibility for defending the land, and all should resolve to make complete sacrifices.”

In the last ten days of July, the Japanese army began to attack the 29th Battalion. The chief commander of the 29th Battalion stationed in the Northeast, Song Zheyuan, knew that the Sino-Japanese war was inevitable. He ordered all his troops to take on the war courageously. On Aug 1, Commissioner Chiang pronounced openly: China has reached a critical point between survival and decimation. The entire nation is ready to confront the war. On Aug 13, war began at Songhu. After three months, China’s finest troops suffered heavy losses. Shanghai was lost. However, China did manage to defeat Japan’s boastful claim of “conquering China in three months.” In mid-November, the government moved to Chongqing.

In mid-December, the Japanese army entered Nanjing and began a bloody massacre. Civil and military casualties in China numbered above 300,000. This event is known in history as the Nanjing Massacre.

“Taiwan Cultural History Vol. 2” (Sanmin), page 145.


United States

In 1937, the Japanese struck again. As airplanes bombed Chinese cities, highly disciplined and well-equipped Japanese troops overran eastern China, including Beijing and Guangzhou. Jiang Jieshi [Chiang Kai-shek] retreated to the interior and set up his capital at Chongquing.

Afer a lengthy siege, Japanese troops marched into the city of Nanjing on Dec. 13. Nanjing was an important cultural center, and had been the Nationalist capital before Chongqing. After the city’s surrender, the Japanese killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, civilians and brutalized still more. The cruelty and destruction became known around the world as the “Rape of Nanking.”

Primary source: ‘Massacre in Nanjing’

From December 1937 to March 1938, the Japanese army terrorized the people of Nanjing.

This account is from a classified Chinese document on the incident: “In the last ten days of December, the campaign to clear the streets began…Japanese soldiers, in groups of three to five, went from door to door wielding long swords, loudly screaming out orders, and insisting that the doors be opened…those who had been hiding inside…could not help but poke their heads out their doors to look around and see what had happened outside. Then catastrophe befell them. The moment they opened their doors…the Japanese opened fire. On this one day alone, the dead and wounded numbered in the thousands…”

“Japanese Imperialism and the Massacre in Nanjing,” Gao Xingzu, Wu Shimin, Hu Yungong and Cha Ruizhen, as quoted in: “World History: Connections to Today” (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005), page 737.

(Nov. 22, 2008)

SPECIAL ON HISTORY TEXTBOOKS / The Divided Memories and Reconciliation Project

The Divided Memories and Reconciliation project is a three-year effort to understand the formation of historical memory regarding the wartime era in Asia. Unresolved historical issues continue to bedevil present relations in the region. While there is recognition of the need for reconciliation, the barrier to resolving these long-standing historical disputes lies, we believe, in the existence of divided, often conflicting historical memories.

The project aims to further reconciliation through a comparative study of how the main actors in Northeast Asia–along with the United States–form their view of the past. It does not seek to assign blame or to forge a common account of history that everyone can embrace. Rather than a single “truth,” it hopes to deepen the understanding that every nation selectively shapes its memory of the past.

The first phase of this project focused on the role of education in shaping historical memory, looking specifically at high school history textbooks in Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States. The second phase, now being completed, is a comparative study of the impact of popular culture, and film in particular, on historical memory.

In the first phase, after translating the most widely used world and national history textbooks in all five societies, we convened an international conference of historians and textbook writers at Stanford earlier this year to analyze and compare the books.

Stanford historian Peter Duus’ analysis of the textbooks was among the contributions offered at this gathering–and at subsequent workshops held so far in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

As these excerpts on the Nanjing “massacre” make clear, accounts of this important incident vary in their details and intensity. The Japanese textbooks have been widely criticized for downplaying Nanjing, but what is not understood is how little attention this event receives elsewhere.

There is in fact almost no mention of Nanjing in the most widely circulated South Korean national history textbook, in the newly revised history textbooks in Taiwan, or in the most widely used U.S. national history textbooks.

These are national histories, rather than world histories, so they naturally focus on events closer to home. Unfortunately, the priority in all these educational systems is on national rather than world history. The result is a more limited view of the past. American students get extensive accounts of the Pacific war with Japan, for example, but read little about the Sino-Japanese war that preceded and set the stage for that war. Similarly, South Korean textbooks focus almost entirely on their experience of colonial rule by Japan but offer almost no account of the Japanese invasion of China, an event that sets the context for decisions made about how to rule Korea.

For all these societies, these “divided memories” are thus incomplete.

Sneider, associate director for research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, is a former journalist and Tokyo correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. For more information about this project, go to aparc.stanford.edu

(Nov. 22, 2008)

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