Week 8: The Burden of History

Schneider, Claudia. 2008. The Japanese History Textbook Controversy in East Asian Perspective. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 617(1): 107-22.

Emergence and Evolution

First objective: to show that the 'Japanese history textbook controversy" issue has appeared and periodically recurred as a result of specific conditions and shifts in the domestic and international contexts.

The textbook controversy has its origins in 1955, when conservative politicians at that time shamed the existing textbooks as "deplorable" and represented anti-Japanese and pro-Chinese leftist thought. Thereafter, the textbooks have periodically been a source of debates between conservative and progressive forces. The bureaucrats at the Ministry of Education (MOE) have been debatably conservative.

However, these debates did not become of international nature until the 1980s, largedy due to the cold war context that the countries were situated within. The watershed event occurred in the summer of 1982 when the first major international textbook controversy emerged. This debate was triggered primarily by the news reports which had (incorrectly) reported that the Japanese MOE had ordered that the term "aggression/invasion" used in Japanese textbooks to describe Japanese military action in northeast China during the 1930s be changed to the word "advancement." Since then, other countries had become vocal in the international arena of their complaints.

There are several lasting characteristics of the first major international textbook controversy. Firstly, the debate appeared and was influenced by the mass media, mainly newspaper reports that sometimes contained mutual and unexamined copying of exerpts of text. Secondly, it was extended by domestic conditions and became included in larger domestic issues. Lastly, the issue became both a reinforcing and destabilizing factor of government legitimacy.

And, immediately following the first major international textbook debate, the Japanese MOE added the criteria for textbook authorization of the so-called "Neighboring Countries Clause," which requires that considerations should be given for neighboring countries' perspectives. The conservative/right-wing forces have shown considerable discontent over this clause. Such dissatisfaction was a factor that led to the second major international textbook controversy in March 1986, when the National Committee for the Protection of Japan published the New History of Japan textbook. To make matters worse, then-Minister of Education Fujio Masayuki made insensitive comments who subsequently was forced to resign. This event reinforced Japan's image as unrepentant towards its neighbors.

Significant changes occurred in the 1990s. Foremost, the Japanese came to be more aware of unresolved issues and Japan's responsibility in the war as a perpetrator. Moreover, the more sincere attitude of Japan during the brief period of non-LPD administration established a baseline from which the Japanese government has not officially retreated. These advancements, however, have caused a conservative backlash which was reinforced by the "new defiant nationalism" which arose after the end of the period of strong economic growth of the early 1990s. One part of the conservatives' activities included targeting history education, blaming that it transmitted a "mashochistic" view of Japanese history. An infamous example is the publication of the New History Textbook by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Tsukuru-kai) in 1996.

The third major international textbook controversy was an extention of the previous controversies but with new boundries. The media again played a role in the debate between the Asahi and Sankei newspapers. This time, however, the academic paradigm had shifted and the constructivist/relativist position by Tsukuru-kai plagued the context within which the debate took place in. Nevertheless, the chief difference was the rise of civil society actors. For example, a number of civil society actors such as Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21 contributed to the extremely low rate of adoption (0.04%) of the New History Textbook. Moreover, in China and Korea, civil society actors developed their agendas through bottom-up efforts, which were also sustained by popular nationalisms. In consequence, the respective governments had to "act tough" when the general public was in outrage. It is noteworthy that these protests were done in the wider context, such as China's protest of Japanese efforts to gain a permanent seat on the UNSC. In the process, new tools of communication such as text messaging played a large role in their organization of activities.


Second objective: to examine the textbook issue's connections with, and particularities vis-à-vis, other controversial history issues and explore why textbooks per se have generated such heated debates.

the textbooks have generated such heated debates because:


Third objective: to provide insights into the ambiguous impacts that the controversies have had on textbook content and on the handling of the region's connected but divided history in broader terms.

the effects of the "textbook controversies" are that:


Dirlik, Arif. 1991. "Past Experience, If Not Forgotten, Is a Guide to the Future"; Or, What Is in a Text? The Politics of History in Chinese-Japanese Relations. Boundary 2 18 (3):29-58.

Sample Text

Shibuichi, Daiki. 2005. The Yasukuni Shrine Dispute and the Politics of Identity in Japan: Why All the Fuss? Asian Survey 45 (2):197-215.

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