Skip to content

The Textbook Feedback Loop and Masochistic History

A number of people have noticed (see for example the translation in an article over at EastSouthWestNorth) that the new edition of the controversial textbook is not the biggest concern. Other textbooks approved this year may be dropping some of their coverage of wartime atrocities. As countless commentators have pointed out (but few news articles do), the controversial “new” textbook’s first edition was adopted by almost no one. And yet, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in bookstores all over Japan.

Why did it sell so well and yet have so low an adoption rate? “Because Japanese are right-wing fanatics,” goes the explanation by the protesters and others who are rabidly anti-Japanese throughout the world. Well, I bought a copy (through a used bookstore), and as was the motivation in my case, I have no doubt in my mind that the book sold thousands of copies because this little book, full of nonsense, has single-handedly created a diplomatic crisis for Japan and generated mountains of hateful and derogatory anti-Japanese vomit all over Asia and elsewhere. “What on earth is all this about?” says the average Japanese, and when they notice the book piled in stacks at their local store, they buy a copy.

Of course, that can’t explain every purchase. A growing number of young and confident Japanese who want their country to become “normal” by revising its “Peace Constitution,” who want to wave their flag with pride, sing their national anthem, and urge the world to accept Japan’s place on a reformed Security Council as one of the great powers — this growingly nationalistic constituency are timed perfectly to be extra sensitive to any criticism from the outside and extra willing to believe those who they feel are are trying to expel the barbarians (攘夷) from Japan’s historiography. Nationalistic revisionists everywhere are scoring points with the terms like “masochistic history.” They urge everyone to stop “hurting our country” by raising children like their parents were raised – trained to accept Japan as a subservient partner in the US-Japan alliance, a chastised, despised, and ultimately aberrant child who, after running amok in Asia on a mission of liberation, had to go back to the school of civilization and enlightenment under the guiding rule of American hegemony.

This message finds an attentive ear, even amongst those who hereto couldn’t care less about how many people died in the slaughter at Nanjing, how many comfort women were coerced or deceived, and who would be perfectly willing to accept the judgment of historians. Now, however, there is the growing realization that history is deeply political and that history has real consequences. The left-leaning and Marxist scholars who dominated the Japanese academic establishment in the postwar period and well into the 1980s never lost sight of that fact, but in their deeply empirical and positivist approaches, they failed to pass on this lesson to the new generation of historians and most of all – the average guy on the street.

It has always been the left who has best mobilized history throughout the modern world. Nationalism, which we all now associate with the right, in its earliest forms was dominated by the forces of the left. Indeed it was the left – forces who wanted to form national communities, albeit imagined, in which the citizens with rights were the fundamental unit of the nation and not the aristocratic elites with their foreign tongues and traditions. Communism and socialist activists who occasionally (certainly less often than we are led to believe) transcended the national in their visions of the future have through the ages always seen the control of history as key and Marxist thought brought Hegelian teology to new heights with its relentless progressivism.

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that the revisionist movement in Japan is full of former-Marxists who have undergone a kind of tenkô, or conversion, to the far right. Their nationalism was born in the fires of the anti-US protests of the 1960s. International socialism could no longer serve their needs, and they returned to the warm bosom of cultural essentialism and national myth. To this, however, they brought the very weapon that Communism wielded so jealously: history.

In this respect, this generation of revisionists are very similar to those in the pre-war. Almost all of the leading intellectuals and ideologues of Japan’s pre-war empire who wrote the classic texts describing Japan’s unique mission in the world (that are still deeply popular amongst the right-wing in Japan today) dabbled in Marxism or were deeply influenced by it. Anyone reading Watsuji Tetsurô’s classic crypto-nationalist Fûdô (The title is often translated as “Climate and Culture”) is struck by the preface in which he admits to revising the text in order to expunge the old Marxist terminology that he once was poisoned with. Miki Kiyoshi, who is one of the great architects of Japan’s vision for a liberated Asia, also started out deeply interested in Marxism, though he came to reject class struggle. Despite his fascist philosophy, he actually rejected a “narrow Japanism” and believed Japan was ironically superior because of its “world spirit.” The list goes on and on. It should be a healthy reminder to progressives like myself, however, that the ideological roots of fascism in Japan, as is the case elsewhere, are deeply connected with left-leaning philosophies.

What is important in this case, however, is the fact that the mainstream historical scholarship of Japan, if not the majority of the academy in Japan as far as I can tell, has become so completely enchanted with a positivist or “apolitical” approach to their scholarship that they have forgotten lessons already learned. There is NO such thing as apolitical history, NO such thing as doing a history of “just the facts” and completely impossible to exempt oneself from the present when we look at the past. This is why in 2001 the mainstream historians, who I believe are still left-leaning and non-revisionist (now this term “revisionism” reveals its uncomfortable hypocrisy) with respect to Japan’s imperialism and wartime activities, were almost completely paralyzed when faced with the new textbook. Despite its low adoption rate, it dominated the discourse on history in the media and government. Suddenly, hundreds of academics who laughed at its comically nationalistic narrative and who believed they could just ignore it and thus rob it of legitimacy were being propelled into the media light and expected to wage a battle they had no interest in fighting.

When they did, the results were deeply unsatisfying to everyone. They quibbled over numbers, wavered in their justification for including and excluding events, and some found themselves forced to admit that there were in fact few “factual” errors in the text that were quite worth the fuss. When the nationalists demanded that we “tell a history to make our children proud of Japan” they could hardly argue since this is clearly the position of the Ministry of Education. Surely they could not attack the ministry for having such a policy because it is the fundamental principle justifying the teaching of national history all over the world. National history contributes to identify formation, to a sympathy for national principles and national goals, and it necessarily privileges the self over the portrayals of the other. The government-approved list of events which must be included in all textbooks are those chosen to narrate the progress of the nation towards its powerful and modern form. This poses little or no problem to the radical revisionists, but it severely restricts the ability of historians to write textbooks where the subject of the sentence isn’t “Japan.” Class, ethnicity, gender, regional or municipal units of identification, colonial subjects, victims of invasion, the list goes on – these can only find their way into the narrative through the careful negotiation with and subordination to the story of “Japan” as an abstract and mobile target which is propelled towards greatness in the present.

It is certainly possible to tell a national history which condemns the nation. My high school American history course was of this kind (how we treated the blacks, how we treated the native americans, how we treated the Vietnamese, and how we treated the world were four major sections of my class). However, such critical approaches are almost helpless in the face of criticism that they are inconsistent with “teaching our children to love our country.” They survive only as an undercurrent of (usually left-leaning) resistance to the overwhelmingly dominant trend supporting national history. Because the nation remains unproblematized as the unit of study, these approaches remain trapped by it.

So what to do? Well, the first step lies not in greater regulation and government control over historical narratives, but in severing the connection between the state (who today is the institutional embodiment of the nation in most places) and history education. This step accomplishes two things in the case of Japan: 1) It makes it impossible to blame “Japan” for “issuing” or “approving” or “allowing” textbooks. The Japanese government’s currently dubious claims to be “neutral” will be, if not more plausible, at least defensible. 2) It permits post-national (transnational or simply a-national) historical approaches the freedom to develop and compete. Without a doubt, the latter approaches will be met in the short term with resounding failures in the textbook market, especially below the college level, where community involvement in the textbook selection process precludes adequate consideration for these more complicated and nuanced narratives. We know this already from such efforts elsewhere. Nationalism doesn’t disappear overnight – but neither did it appear overnight. In the short 100-300 years in the history of the “nation” as a primary unit of identification and loyalty, it has faced great challenges. Its demise, to which I dedicate my life’s scholarship, can only be expected to require a similar amount of time.

In the short term thus, things do not bode well for the reform of textbooks domestically in Japan. On the contrary, the current crisis has led to a spiraling “feedback loop” in which an apathetic and uninterested Japanese mainstream public has become quickly politicized with respect to this issue. The textbook in question generated massive anti-Japanese sentiment which has gone well and far beyond a critique of “the Japanese government” or “the rightists” or “the LDP” or “that textbook” and has transformed (at least as seen by all the major media reports in Japan) into a battle between the Chinese and “Japanese pigs” or “Japanese devils.” In doing so the protest leaders, who are very often the brilliant students at China’s leading universities (Beida, Qinghua, Renmin, Fudan, etc.) foolishly fail to realize that they have strong allies in Japan, especially among intellectuals, the teacher’s unions, the left, and even the apathetic public who are vaguely sorry about the evils of the past. Increasingly, however, this development has led to a shift in Japan. As a result, the growingly loud voice of conservative nationalists and the potential for the radical textbook to pick up as much as a tenth of the schools in Japan could be behind the fact that the other seven textbooks may have (who has actually seen the as-yet un-adopted 2005 textbooks anyways!!) all shifted somewhat toward the “center” or “right” in their portrayals of the war (if, for example, it is true that they all drop references to comfort women that they included before). I have seen some of the earlier editions (2002) of these textbooks in the National Children’s library in Tokyo and in some cases they had great sidebars on colonial rule and wartime atrocities. It is these textbooks that will be the one of the greatest casualties of this crisis.

More importantly, it is plainly obvious that this crisis in China has led to a growingly hostile media scene in Japan. The leading right-leaning Yomiuri has had scathingly anti-China editorials of late and rarely allows for balance. The once dominant left-leaning Asahi simply cannot maintain its traditionally pro-China leanings during the current protests and you find more and more frustration in their editorials and articles towards a China which fails to appreciate the diversity of opinions and historical views within Japan, the true nature of its textbook approval process, or the albeit mixed history of its “apology diplomacy” in the past.

My optimistic professors and advisor in Japan were only a year or two ago rejoicing that even Chinese intellectuals had begun to utter the once taboo phrase “East Asian community” and my department triumphantly won Ministry of Education support for a research institute whose very mission is dedicated to fostering an “East Asian identity” based on equality and cooperation. Professors there claimed that the history problem that has so plagued efforts by rational-choice political scientists to create pretty models of state-to-state relations in the region was finally beginning to subside. Instead we see the powerful “irrational” behavior on the mass level in response to these issues, whether it is in South Korea over the Dokto island issue, the Sino-Korean dispute over Koryô, or the anti-Japanese protests. Whatever government involvement there is in all three cases, it is simply a fiction that the governments are in full control. Even in China, the government must react and adapt to the public, if only to remain marginally in control. If they cannot stop the rock throwing at a consulate, they can at least ration out the rocks.

The online news and weblog coverage of this has been intense, but alas, with some important exceptions, I have seen plenty of the same polarization of opinions online as we find amongst the frustrated Chinese and Japanese. I urge all of us to take this opportunity to explore the contradictions of national history itself, rather than fling accusations of hypocrisy at the Chinese or barrages of hateful insult at the growing historical revisionism in Japan.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Robert Miyahara | 2005.4.18 at 6:03 | Permalink

    Thank you for this nuanced and thoughtful analysis. The stories coming out of China had disturbed me on a deeply emotional level. Your knowledge and insight has given me comfort and guidance in my own attitudes towards this crisis.

  2. Muninn | 2005.4.18 at 8:05 | Permalink

    Thanks for your kind words Robert!

  3. jyc | 2005.4.18 at 20:53 | Permalink

    Thanks for your post. It’s been a terrible disappointment to me that so much coverage of this issue, especially on the Japan-leaning side, is so unanimously right wing, and worse than that, tinged with patronizing Orientalism towards all the parties involved.

  4. sian | 2005.5.28 at 20:47 | Permalink

    great article!

    extremely balanced view that reveals a view that is ignored by the media.

    Thankyou, it really helped me with a nuiversity essay for international relations in east asia.


{ 2 } Trackbacks

  1. Simon World | 2005.4.17 at 19:03 | Permalink

    Japan/China tensions (Updated April 18th)

    Note: I am just expanding now on yesterday’s coverage, starting from the Update below. The previous coverage is below the fold, in chronological order. Update April 17th/18th * China clamped down hard on activists in Beijing, preventing large protests…

  2. Robert miyahara | Sellners | 2012.8.28 at 12:22 | Permalink

    [...] Muninn : The Textbook Feedback Loop and Masochistic HistoryApr 17, 2005 … Robert Miyahara | 2005.4.18 at 6:03 | Permalink. Thank you for this nuanced and thoughtful analysis. The stories coming out of China had … [...]