Academic journal article Social Education

Countering Textbook Distortion: War Atrocities in Asia, 1937-1945

Academic journal article Social Education

Countering Textbook Distortion: War Atrocities in Asia, 1937-1945

Article excerpt

The globalization of industry, culture, and technology has brought increasing pressure on all societies, in the face of international scrutiny, to address their histories more honestly. Despite these trends, American history textbooks and history teaching continue to neglect an important part of World War II history: the atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre, "comfort women," and biological warfare experiments committed by Japanese troops from 1937 to 1945 during Japan's occupation of parts of Asia.

In the early months of 2005, much of the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the World War II Allied victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Around the same time, protests erupted in Asia against a revised Japanese history textbook, The New History Textbook, which critics said covered up Japanese World War II atrocities. (1) The contrast of these two events should inspire teachers to teach about the Asian war crimes, the effects of which are still felt by millions of people in China, Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and which negatively impact Japan's relationship with these countries. Studying the Asian war crimes and the Japanese history textbook controversy together illustrates for students how past events continue to have a strong impact on current events and that history textbooks sometimes distort history; the exposure to different perspectives is necessary to develop students' critical and historical thinking skills.

History textbooks often have political and cultural biases intending to instill national pride and patriotism; as Laura Hein and Mark Selden state, "History and civics textbooks in most societies present an 'official' story highlighting narratives that shape contemporary patriotism." (2) As a result, history textbook writers usually "... leave out anything that might reflect badly upon our national character." (3) One example of this in American history textbooks is coverage of the Vietnam War, which is treated cautiously, despite widespread criticism of the war among Americans. This type of sanitized history makes it hard to discuss important issues related to the Vietnam War, and it insulates high school students from the strong feelings and wounds associated with this aspect of American and world history. (4) To help students better understand the past, and its direct impact on current events, textbooks and classroom teaching should accommodate multiple perspectives of important historical events, and inform students of both the Western and non-Western perspectives.

In this article, we will delve into the tension between Japan and some Asian countries regarding the aforementioned Japanese history textbook and discuss the three principal Japanese war crimes--which together are increasingly referred to as the "Asian Holocaust." (5) We also suggest resources to support further learning on World War II history in American social studies classes.

Reactions to the New Japanese History Textbook

In May 2005, presidents from more than 60 nations attended a ceremony in Moscow's Red Square to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Then, in August, the world (in particular Asian countries) celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of victory over Imperial Japanese. However, on April 5, 2005, right before these celebrations, the Japanese Ministry of Education approved a new edition of a history textbook for use in middle schools starting April 2006. The authorization of this new history textbook triggered immediate criticism and protests from neighboring countries in Asia, including China, North and South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Still carrying the scars of World War II Japanese aggression, and believing that the war should be fairly presented in Japanese history textbooks, governments in both North and South Korea demanded an apology and that Japan rewrite the history textbook. In China, nationwide demonstrations continued for weeks, condemning Japan for glossing over the World War II atrocities it committed against the Chinese. …

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