East Asia’s History Education Problem

Furthermore, the limited effect of historians’ debate on governmental and public commemorations is aggravated by two characteristics of history education in East Asia that prevent younger generations from developing the competencies to critically reflect on the history problem. The first is the heavy focus on memorization. Since entrance exams for secondary and higher education are extremely competitive and based mostly on multiple-choice questions, Japanese, South Korean, and Chinese students are required to absorb large amounts of knowledge from elementary through high school. As a result, history education at primary and secondary levels forces students to memorize dates of important historical events and names of prominent historical figures in preparation for exams. Such memorization-based history education tends to create the impression that history is a field with clear, distinct answers, appropriate for multiple-choice questions, misleading students to accept a certain version of the past as an objective truth. Students are thus deprived of opportunities to develop the cognitive skills necessary to weigh conflicting historical evidence and adjudicate between competing interpretations—the very cognitive skills required to deal with the history problem.70

Especially in Japan, these shortcomings in history education are magnified by the limited coverage of modern and contemporary history in primary and secondary education. Japanese history textbooks devote considerable space to ancient history prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration but provide only brief coverage of the twentieth century when Japan committed aggression and atrocities against South Korea and China. Lessons on the twentieth century are also typically offered at the end of the school year, when both teachers and students are busy preparing for graduation ceremonies and entrance exams, ensuring students get only quick and superficial exposure to the historical period. In fact, the Japanese government deliberately limited the teaching of modern Japanese history in schools precisely because the historical period was central to the history problem. In August 2005, for example, Machimura Nobutaka, then minister of foreign affairs and former minister of education, admitted that the Ministry of Education advised schools to minimize the teaching of modern Japanese history so as to prevent some “Marxist-Leninist teachers”—JTU members in particular— from inculcating in students sell-hatred toward Japan.71

Machimura’s position, however, not only reflected the LDP’s longstanding aversion to the JTU, but also pointed out an important problem with the pedagogical tendency among history teachers in Japan. For JTU teachers, “Never send our children to the battlefield again!” was their most important slogan, consistent with the Tokyo Trial historical view that allowed no justification for Japan’s past aggression.72 Accordingly, JTU teachers strongly criticized the conservative government for promoting the nationalist commemoration that presented Japan’s past aggression as a heroic act of selfdefense. At the same time, JTU teachers, and Japanese teachers in general, were trained in the existing Japanese education system, where history education was anchored in memorization. As a result, they did not always provide their own students with the kind of history education that would encourage critical evaluation of historical evidence and interpretations. Although education reforms during the Occupation changed the emphasis in history education from emperor-centered nationalism to pacifism, the basic structure of history education in Japan—the emphasis on memorization— did not change.

Postwar history education in Japan was therefore torn between two diametrically opposing forces: the conservative government promoted nationalist commemoration of the Asia-Pacific War, whereas JTU teachers promoted the Tokyo Trial historical view that judged Japan as solely and entirely guilty of the war. To preempt controversies over how to teach modern Japanese history, the Ministry of Education decided to reduce the coverage of the twentieth century in history textbooks and emphasize the chronological, empiricist approaches in history curriculum.73 Since history education in Japan continues to downplay the modern period and emphasize memorization, the majority of Japanese citizens are ill-prepared to engage in constructive debates on the Asia-Pacific War among themselves or with South Korean and Chinese citizens.

The situation of history education is not much different in South Korea and China, either. Since South Korean students have to amass large amounts of knowledge to compete for admissions to universities, history education in the country is focused on memorization.74 Similarly, while school curricula in China are heterogeneous across provinces and rapidly changing in recent decades, Chinese history lessons also heavily focus on memorization of historical events, as well as emphasize their moral-ideological implications.75 The education systems in Japan, South Korea, and China thus share the tendency to present students with versions of the past as objective truths, rather than as provisionally settled interpretations open to future revision. As educational researcher Edward Vickers cautioned, “The prospects for implementing a pedagogy that truly encourages a critical approach to the past are likely to remain poor” in East Asia.76 If younger generations in the three countries continue to be taught memorization-based history lessons, the history problem will retain the risk of escalating into an intractable conflict over incommensurable versions of the past.

Ultimately, however, the fundamental problem with history education in East Asia is not the focus on memorization per se, but the ability of the governments to control the content of history lessons via textbook inspection. In Japan, South Korea, and China, teachers can use only history textbooks that are approved by their ministries of education. Under t hese textbook- tnspection systems, textbook writers and publishers have the formal freedom to decide on the structures and contents of their history textbooks. Given the legally binding curricular guidelines, however, many textbook writers and publishers are forced to exercise self-censorship.77 After all, the governments have the power to require revisions according to the curricular guidelines and thereby exert significant control—almost censorship—over history textbooks.78 As a result, history textbooks decisively influence citizens’ historical views, as Ienaga Saburo recognized: “No bestseller can beat a textbook. You can stop reading other books if you do not like them. But you have to read a textbook, whether you like it or not, in order to graduate from school. For this reason, I think that a textbook is a more effective means than a public-security law for the government to influence the minds of citizens.”79

Specifically, the Japanese government has insisted that history textbooks include only “facts,” not interpretations or disputes.80 Take, for example, the government’s counterargument against Ienaga’s lawsuit. At the Tokyo High Court in 1980, the government accused Ienaga of “making no distinction between history and history education. . . . At the level of compulsory education, history education does not reach the level of specialized scholarship. Its aim is to provide students with basic historical knowledge that Japanese citizens should possess. . . . History textbooks should be written based on doctrines widely accepted in academia . . . and textbook writers should take into consideration developmental stages of students.”81 The government thus argued that historians’ debate should not be imported into history education because the latter’s ultimate goal is to educate members of the Japanese nation, not to train historians.

The government’s counterargument, however, suffered from two serious problems. First, as Toyama Shigeki, a history professor who supported Ienaga, pointed out, “Foundational historical questions, which require comprehension of complexly intertwined historical facts, necessarily lead historians to exercise their own historical judgments. With respect to these questions, disagreement among different doctrines is especially strong.”82 Put another way, if history textbooks are to include only descriptions of the past where historiographical debates are already settled, they cannot but become short because they are unable to provide details of important historical events, many of which are still contested—i ndeed, Japanese history textbooks are very thin. By demanding that students be taught only already established historical facts, the government kept Japanese citizens from developing the competencies to interpret the difficult past critically and independently.

The second and more serious problem is that the Japanese government assumed that students are not mature enough to work through conflicting interpretations. Again, Toyama argued in defense of Ienaga:

We should not make children and adolescents fear disagreement. We would like students to know that they can examine and refine their own ideas by having dialogues with other people who have different ideas. If there are only citizens who uncritically obey the government’s decisions, democracy will be destroyed. The Ministry of Education argues that students in elementary, junior high, and high schools have no competence to make their own judgments. But this argument is based on the wrong understanding. If we carefully prepare teaching materials, students will show the astonishing ability to form their own judgments.83

Toyama thus criticized the artificial separation between history and history education as the government’s attempt to deploy history education to pro?duce obedient citizens. Nagahara Keiji, another history professor and supporter of Ienaga, even more forcefully criticized the separation as reminiscent of the prewar system that had promoted “patriotic-spiritualistic history education by decoupling history education from history.”84

Even though Ienaga’s lawsuits helped increase descriptions of Japan’s past wrongdoings in history textbooks, they ultimately failed to eliminate the system of textbook inspection itself. Moreover, by resorting to lawsuits, Ienaga and his supporters created the paradoxical situation wherein historians are forced to give up their professional authority to adjudicate competing historical judgments among themselves, and instead allow judges, who are not experts of history, to write official history in the form of judicial judgments. Ienaga was indeed aware of this paradoxical situation and the negative implications that his lawsuits created. This is why, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in August 1997, Ienaga stated, “I hope that the textbook- lawsuit movement will develop to eventually abolish the system of textbook inspection itself. I really hope that the next generation will do it.”85 Here, Ienaga’s long struggle and lasting hope is also relevant to historians and educators in South Korea and China, where the writing of textbooks is even more heavily regulated by the governments.

Given their power to define and impose legitimate versions of the past, then, the governments in East Asia remain the most important actors driving the dynamic and trajectory of the history problem, despite the growing role of mass media in recent decades.86 So long as the governments in Japan, South Korea, and China control history textbooks via their curricular guidelines and inspection systems, officially approved history textbooks continue to teach nation-centered histories: history textbooks in Japan provide descriptions of Japan’s past wrongdoings only in minimal amounts, whereas history textbooks in South Korea and China promote patriotism based on legacies of anti-Japanese resistance. In the meantime, since none of the teaching materials produced by nongovernmental joint projects have been able to pass governmental inspection, they are used in schools only as informal supplemental materials, thus failing to fully import historians’ critical reflections into history education. In short, as Kosuge Nobuko observed, “One of the most urgent tasks in the process of resolving the history problem and moving toward reconciliation is ‘to historicize history (rekishi no rekishika).’ The problem in East Asia is the politics that does not permit the historiciza- tion of history and the plurality of historical interpretations, that is, the politics that supports and reproduces stereotypes about former enemies.”87

 
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