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Collective Amnesia: Japan's Crusade to Forget


"..only through remembrance could justice and idealism be restored to a world devastated by war, racism... by demanding a full accounting of the past you will help set the moral compass for future generations" Rabbi Abraham Cooper, The Moral Power of Memory, February 17, 2000



A nation's sincerity in confronting its past atrocities lies in how these atrocities are remembered and taught to the next generation. To confront the past is not always easy as Germany found. Yet the recurrent controversy over Japan's approval and publication of revisionist textbooks and the frequent denial and justification of its war crimes in the 20th century by organizations, individuals and politicians alike show only too well a public's penchant to forget and a government's fostering of collective amnesia. (See news reports Sydney Morning Herald & Globe and Mail)



Falsification of history: the Crux of the Textbook Controversy


In the printed medium, whether through history texts or best-selling cartoon books, called manga, Japan has a long history of rewriting and whitewashing its past.Yoshinori Kobayashi's latest bestseller manga, "On Taiwan," claims in one cartoon that Taiwanese women volunteered to become the sexual slaves of Japanese soldiers as the role offered them social advancement.In the most recent outbreak of the textbook controversy, Japan approved in April 2001 for use in 2002, revisionist junior high school textbooks that either gloss over or are silent on the widely known atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during WW II.(See news reports Japan Times & Asahi Shimbun)†† The eye of the storm centers on a text edited by the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform.Among other distortions, this text ignores the existence of so-called "comfort women", dismisses the atrocities committed in the Rape of Nanking, justifies Japan's colonization and annexation of Korea and extols its war of invasion in the 30's and 40's as the Greater East Asia War to liberate Asian nations from Western colonialism.



Protest in Japan over Falsification of History


Within Japan, immediate and strong opposition to the approval of these texts came from, among others, a coalition of 12 Japanese organizations headed by the Children and Textbooks: Japan Network 21 which drafted and issued a Statement on April 13, 2001.



Protest in South Korea over the Same


Furor over the approval of these revisionist texts erupted just as swiftly in South Korea.It recalled its ambassador to Tokyo while its legislators called for a boycott of Japanese goods in April, 2001.(See news report Washington Post)In May of the same year, South Korea officially demanded over thirty changes in these approved texts.(See news report Asahi Shimbun)†† In July, when the Japanese government rejected calls for major changes to the revisionist text noted above, South Korea took further steps to register its strong protest including a freeze on military exchanges, a threat to delay liberalization of trade and a cancellation of planned exchange visits by students and scholars of Korea and Japan.The escalating pressure also threatened the cancellation of to-be-jointly held World Cup soccer later next year. (See news report New York Times)



Indignation in China


China is equally enraged over this issue.Cheng Yonghua, deputy director-general of the Asian Affairs Department in China's Foreign Ministry presented Yoshio Nomoto, minister of the Japanese Embassy, with China's demand for a list of changes in the noted revisionist text in May 2001.(See news report Asahi Shimbun)Over the Japanese Government's announcement that the publication of the revisionist texts will proceed in July 2001, Zhang Qijue, a Spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, voiced China's "extreme regret" and "strong indignation" (See news report China Daily) while Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told his Japanese counterpart that Japan's stubbornness over this issue will damage ties between China and Japan. (See news reports Reuters, Financial Times



International Responses to Textbook Revisionism


The protest is not confined to Asia.An international appeal on the internet is initiated in July 2001 by Asian Studies scholars who urge their colleagues to join in this appeal by logging on to the website at†† Another appeal, similar though not confined to scholars, started in Japan, declaring Asian solidarity against such revisionism. As recently as late July, 2001 U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is quoted as saying that Japan's refusal to revise the revisionist texts is "unacceptable". (See news report Wall Street Journal)



Japan's Response to Protest over Ministry's Approval of Revisionist Texts


In Japan, the authors of the revisionist text were furious over Chinese and Korean demands for changes, claiming that its Asian neighbors have no right to interfere in Japan's teaching and interpretation of its own history.(See news report New York Times) The Japanese government, despite the mounting international tension over the issue, publicly rejected proposals either to withdraw the noted controversial revisionist text or published it with major revisions on July 9, 2001.Meanwhile, a private junior high school in western Japan became the first to broadcast its intent to use the revisionist text in June, (See news report Associated Press) following which a textbook council in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture approved the revisionist textbook for use by 30 public junior high schools next April. (See news report Asahi Shimbun)



The Yasukuni Shrine: An Attempt to Glorify War Criminals


Postwar issues surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine (Also see Wages of Guilt) where several Class A war criminals are enshrined provide a barometer of the nation's proclivity to forget. In the late 60's a series of bills were introduced for state maintenance of the Shrine while the decade of the seventies saw the visit of Prime Minister Miki Takeo to the Shrine itself, albeit as a "private citizen".In 1985 Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro made an "official visit", in direct contradiction to Article 11 of the SFPT in which Japan accepted the judgment of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.( See Why Asia Demanding Postwar Compensation Now)This year as one of his first acts after his election, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi declared his intention to pay an official visit in August 2001 to Yasukuni Shrine.(See news report New York Times) which drew a sharp response from China  (See news report Reuters



Other Attempts at Denial of Historical Facts


Denials of specific episodes of atrocities abound, one of the widely reported being those of the Shintaro ISHIHARA, the governor of Tokyo who denied the well documented Rape of Nanking ever occurred.†† Asrecently as year 2000, a nationalist group held an Osaka conference in the Peace Museum of one of Japan's largest cities, to insist that the 1937 Nanjing Massacre is a myth.(See news reports New York Times & Associated Press)At the same facility, the same citizens' group in 1998 organized a screening of the controversial Japanese film "Pride", which depicts WW II leader Hideki Tojo as a heroic warrior rather than a war criminal.(See news reports New York Times & Japan Press Weekly and L.A. Times Editorial)†† 



Saburo Ienaga: the Fight Against Collective Amnesia


Perhaps the fight against collective amnesia is best exemplified by the 88 year-old (in 2001) historian by the name of Saburo Ienaga, who for decades had fought the Ministry of Education to have the truth about Japanese imperial aggression in Asia told to future generations of Japan and the world. His lawsuits against textbook censorship led to a partial victory in 1997 when Japan's Supreme Court ruled in his favor in some but not all counts. (See "Japanese Education, Nationalism, and Ienaga Saburo's Textbook Lawsuits", Nozaki Yoshiko and Inokuchi Hiromitsu in Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States edited by Laura Elizabeth Hein & MarkSelden)This year (2001) Ienaga is nominated by a diverse worldwide group to be the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2001. His concluding words in The Pacific War should resound in a Japan that only wants to forget that: "...collective amnesia will ...erase the costly lessons of war"


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