Leading Article: History as seen from Tokyo

CRITICS of France's highly centralised school system used to joke that the education minister in Paris could look at his watch and say with certainty which subject every 11-year-old in the country was studying at that moment. In Tokyo today, they go further: the minister can even say which books the pupils are reading. Japan has a system of central control of school textbooks that sits uneasily in a free society. It has just been upheld by its Supreme Court.

In theory, school books are not censored in Japan. Rather they are 'screened': advisers to the education ministry go through drafts of forthcoming textbooks and 'suggest' amendments to them. Until recently the system was secret and the bureaucrats were free to demand hundreds of changes. Publishers have always obeyed. They know that a book lacking the stamp of bureaucratic approval will never reach the country's schools. This system has had a pernicious effect on two generations of Japanese. Specifically, the reluctance of the ministry's senior officials to face what Japan did in Asia before and during the Second World War has resulted in a bizarre teaching of the country's modern history. The causes of the war and the details of its waging have been left vague; only the agony of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain in sharp focus. As a result, an alarming number of Japanese under 30 know little about the Pacific war, and some do not even know which country started it. It is no wonder, then, that young Japanese tourists are puzzled to be treated with hostility when they visit the Asian countries that their grandfathers invaded.

Last Tuesday, the Supreme Court in Tokyo upheld a lower court ruling denying compensation to a professor whose soul-searching New Japanese History the ministry rejected outright in 1962. Thanks to the absurd slowness of Japanese legal process, the case is now almost moot; the author is 79, and the most instructive bits of Japan's modern history have happened since his book was published. But the Court upholds the controversial screenings, and the only succour it gives to reformers is to say that the changes demanded by the bureaucrats must be 'reasonable'.

That sends the wrong signal to Japan's people, and to countries once its vassals and now its neighbours. It reinforces the impression that Japan is loath to face up to its record of atrocities before and during the Second World War. And it goes against the tide inside Japanese education itself, which is belatedly giving more scope to individuality and self-expression. There is much to be admired in Japanese schooling. The Supreme Court's ruling ensures that a serious weakness remains unremedied.