Japan rejects professor's fight for freedom of speech

Richard Lloyd Parry


"What country does he think he comes from? He's a twisted Japanese," barked the man with the Rising Sun headband. "If he's as holy as Jesus Christ why doesn't he go to America and tell them about the massacre they carried out in Hiroshima?" On the other side of the road, next to the Supreme Court, was another group of demonstrators, with a different point of view. "He's a hero," said one old man. "So many Japanese of my generation refused to face up to the truth of what happened in the war. But thanks to the professor, no one can do that anymore."

Both had cause for satisfaction when the man in question walked out of the courtroom. Yesterday, the epic struggle of Professor Saburo Ienaga, who took on the Japanese government on the issue of school textbook censorship, came to the end in a mixture of victory and defeat.

"Almost no one wins a lawsuit against the government," Professor Ienaga once said. "I did not start this thinking I could win." But over the course of 32 years he has done more than anyone to highlight the issue of censorship and the way in which Japan's educators teach their own history.

It began in 1965 when Professor Ienaga, now a frail 83, brought a case against the Ministry of Education over a school textbook which he had written. All such texts must be screened by the ministry for factual errors and what it perceives as bias. In practice, according to the professor and his supporters, the process serves to eliminate from the education of children important historical facts highlighting the dark side of Japan's past, especially the atrocities perpetrated by its troops during wartime.

In three separate cases, fought to the bitter end over three decades, the professor has contested dozens of examples of this screening, and won only four. Four years ago, the ministry was judged to be wrong when it asked Professor Ienaga to alter a reference to the Nanking massacre, and to delete a reference to rapes perpetrated by Imperial soldiers on the startling grounds that "it is common throughout the world for troops to rape women during wartime". Yesterday, in a three-to-two ruling, the Supreme Court also acknowledged the existence of Unit 731, a notorious secret operation which infected Chinese prisoners with bubonic plague and dissected their bodies while they were still alive. For these victories, Professor Ienaga has won token damages of 400,000 yen (pounds 2,100).

But the court rejected his claim that textbook screening is itself unconstitutional, a violation of freedom of speech and education. Dozens of other examples of interference have over the years been upheld. The ministry's sensitivities are not limited to Japanese atrocities, but to implicit criticism of the Imperial family, and of government policies in general. A reference to the effects on forests of Japan's massive timber imports had to be watered down, and at one point the ministry seemed to be defending not just Japan's war conduct but war itself. The photograph of a mutilated war veteran with prostheses instead of arms and legs, conveyed, it complained, "an excessively negative impression of war".

Despite his partial defeat, in his ninth decade Professor Ienaga does not plan to begin any more legal battles. But the controversies over the textbooks is hotter than ever. In Yokohama, another author is in the midst of a similar case. Meanwhile, support is growing among conservative MPs and right-wing academics for a movement objecting to the "masochistic" history favoured by the professor. "This is the end of the professor's case, but the movement goes on," said Norifumi Tateishi, one of the professor's lawyers."The effort will be continued by supporters, textbook writers, teachers, students, publishers, academics."

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