Textbooks slow to admit shame of Japan's inglorious behaviour

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The Independent Online
Richard Lloyd Parry Tokyo

Question: when is a forcibly- recruited military sex slave, not a forcibly-recruited military sex slave? Answer: when she is a "comfort woman". What is the correct term for the dispatch of armed peace-keeping forces abroad? An "assignment". What do you call it when thousands of Japanese troops invade Manchuria? An "advance". What is the source of this cant, euphemism and evasiveness? Answer: Japan's school history text books.

Japan's modern history has always been an ideological battlefield, and nowhere has the fighting been fiercer than in the classrooms. Every four years, all the text books proposed by publishers for use in schools have to be submitted to the Ministry of Education.

Every four years, the screening process is the occasion of bitter struggles between liberal historians and teachers, and the powerful conservatives of the Japanese bureaucracy.

Over the past 10 years, the former have won several significant victories and in many ways today's history books are strikingly frank.

Gone are the days when the invasion of Manchuria was euphemised as "an advance", and several of the texts make no bones about the Imperial Army's less glorious moments. "In Nanjing, the army massacred large numbers of Chinese people, including not only prisoners of war, but women and children," says one. "The deprivation of food created hardship for the people under Japanese occupation."

This year, a smouldering controversy has flared up over the inclusion, for the first time, of references to "comfort women", the Indonesian, Filipina and Korean sex slaves who were organised in front-line brothels for the use of the Imperial Army.

One hundred and sixteen conservative politicians have formed a cross- party parliamentary group, objecting to what they call a "masochistic" emphasis on shameful aspects of Japan's history, although the references in several of the books are so brief as to be almost meaningless. One publisher records that the government "forced women to go with the army as 'comfort women' and treated them badly".

The "comfort" which the women dispensed, and the details of their "bad" treatment are not explained.

But the education ministry reserves its most vigilant policing for references to current government policy, particularly about the notoriously euphemistic "Self Defence Forces". In numbers of troops and in its annual budget, the SDF is one of the biggest armies on earth, in spite of the clause in Japan's constitution which forbids the maintenance of war potential. Conscious of this ambiguity, the government insists that it is not a "military" force at all, and any such insinuations are ruthlessly rooted out of text books.

When one made reference to the controversial "dispatch" of SDF troops on overseas peace-keeping operations, it was forced to adopt the less militaristic sounding "assignment" instead. A sentence observing that the SDF has "grown into a new Japanese military force" was rewritten. Rather, the ministry insisted that the SDF "has grown identical to military forces in terms of capabilities".