In a landmark victory for Japanese who have been trying to educate young people about their country’s wartime atrocities, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday for the first time that the government had broken the law by censoring textbooks to remove references to the slaughter of civilians.
The ruling was a remarkable triumph for an 83-year-old education professor, Saburo Ienaga, a frail and bespectacled man who has led a 32-year court battle to force the government to allow schools to use textbooks that give children a glimpse of the brutalities committed by Japanese forces in China, Korea, and elsewhere during World War II.
Ienaga’s other lawsuits had ended in defeat, but on Friday the Supreme Court sided with him and declared that the Education Ministry had gone too far in its censorship. The court ordered the ministry to curb its censorship in the future as much as possible and not to impose its own ideas on the scholarship of those who write the books.
The court ruling goes to the heart of an issue that continues to ignite soul-searching and debate in Japan and fierce acrimony between Japan and other Asian countries. The ruling was therefore not just about the past but also about the present, because a major reason for the tensions and antagonisms swirling through Asia is resentment at Japanese brutality in World War II and the perception that Japan has never confronted what it did.
China, South Korea, and North Korea, in particular, are deeply suspicious of Japan and sometimes worry that Japan’s reluctance to teach children about the past suggests that it may become aggressive again.
To be sure, Ienaga’s victory was only a partial one. The court, as expected, declared that the Education Ministry’s system of censoring textbooks is itself legal; it simply found that the ministry had abused the system by deleting references to well-documented atrocities.
“Unfortunately, we did not receive the all-out victory that we had hoped for,” Ienaga said at a news conference. “But the ruling revealed that textbook screening can be illegal.”
The ruling, which granted Ienaga token damages of $3,400, is likely to be important primarily for its moral force, emboldening scholars who write textbooks, and making Education Ministry censors more hesitant to demand changes. Already, the censors have given up enormous ground, allowing far more straightforward treatment in the books than was imaginable a dozen years ago.
One of Ienaga’s battles, for instance, was over the word “aggression” in school textbooks. The ministry ordered him in the 1980s not to characterize Japan’s invasion of China as aggression, saying the term had “negative ethical connotations.” It suggested that he use the expression “military advance.”
Under pressure from China and South Korea, the government later backed down, and textbooks now contain passing references to Japanese “aggression.”
One of the points of contention in Friday’s ruling was a brief mention in Ienaga’s high school history textbook of the Japanese army’s Unit 731, which conducted experiments in germ warfare and tried to create plague outbreaks in China. Veterans of the unit have described dissecting prisoners-of-war while they were alive and conducting brutal experiments on Chinese mothers and their children.
The ministry had ordered Ienaga to expunge all references to Unit 731 from his textbooks. But the court said the ministry had gone too far in ordering the deletion, because the atrocities of Unit 731 “had been established beyond denial.” More broadly, it urged that censorship in general be curtailed as much as possible.
Japan’s system of censoring schoolbooks was imposed by the American occupation authorities immediately after World War II. The American forces wanted to insure that textbooks did not encourage renewed emperor-worship and military aggression, and the system continued when the Americans left.
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