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School history on the global stage

What's taught in the classroom can sometimes have international ramifications

In the 1980s Japan had two serious diplomatic spats with its Asian neighbours over historical accounts of the Second World War and the years leading up to it in school text books.  

The first, in 1982, was triggered by reports that the Japanese Education Ministry(MOE) had rewritten schoolbook history in the process of authorising the texts.  

It had, for example,  leaned on textbook authors to get them to remove the term 'aggression' to describe Japan's behaviour on the Chinese continent before and during the war.

globe and textbookA second dispute arose four years later when a right wing group decided to compile its own textbook. After a number of corrections had been made, the book was eventually approved by the MOE despite the fact that some dubious explanations remained in the text.

Given the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in its colonial operations and the Pacific War these attempts to prettify and play down Japanese aggression inevitably sparked protests across Asia – especially from China and South Korea – as well as internationally.

In both instances – but particularly the first – the Japanese government was slow to understand the extent of foreign antagonism and respond to it.

Dr Mutsumi Hirano, a visiting research fellow at LSE's Asia Research Centre, has used the disputes as case studies for her research into the implications of history education for international relations.

She says: 'The political sciences have generally not given much consideration to education or educational issues. However you only have to think about how school curriculums approach teaching national history with reference to foreign countries to see that education is inherently political.'

She highlights that governments can have considerable influence over future public opinion by exerting an influence on education, particularly because school teaching materials often present history in a way that gives the impression that it is established "truth".

However, although the Japanese government clearly did have the final say over some teaching materials in these instances Dr Hirano argues that the practice of certifying textbooks by the Ministry of Education was far from directly imposing particular ideologies or views on students.

This was not, after all, pre-war Japan where the government subjugated educational institutions to state purposes, with the nation being presented to students as the 'Land of Gods' and the Emperor as the divine figure. However, Japan's neighbours perhaps understandably feared that the textbooks signalled a resurgence of ultra nationalism and militarism.

In fact Dr Hirano argues that the school history syllabus was rather apolitical and methodologically weak, providing superficial explanations of events and lacking in analysis – particularly of the causes of things.  

The history syllabus for senior school students in the 1980s, for example, covered the threat and horror of nuclear weapons. However, it did not explore the reasons behind the terrible bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, namely the devastation and casualties Japan's aggression brought to Asia and the Pacific and the Allied Powers fighting there.

Dr Hirano says: 'If you have not been taught something there's going to be a big hole in your thinking –  even before we come to discuss terminology in relation to historical incidents. And that's really a problem'.

But could school history education affect international relations? In exploring this question Dr Hirano created an analytical framework which envisaged that it could be one of the sources of attitudes of future policy makers and publics and potentially influence future diplomatic relations with foreign powers.  

She says: 'The influence of history education is not something we can observe overnight. But it may be worthwhile to consider how we have come to have certain images and views about foreign countries and people in the first place – those countries where we have never travelled and certainly never stayed long enough to talk face to face with people there in everyday life.'

She points out, in this instance, that the effect of school history education on international relations was rather more immediate. While the disputes did expose Japanese attitudes towards their past and offer crucial keys to their worldviews, they primarily demonstrated that the content of the textbooks offended the feelings of peoples overseas and immediately aggravated relations with neighbouring countries.

One positive outcome of the disputes was that communication began between educational circles in the different countries. Although it was years afterwards, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese historians did work together on a supplementary textbook for middle school students and this was published in the three countries in 2005. Recently their governments also made moves towards launching joint history research.

Indeed the controversies may have been a necessary step towards Japan's reconciliation with its neighbours which had, until then, been impaired by the country's inability to come to term with its 'unfortunate' past.

Is Dr Hirano hopeful that Japan has learned the lessons of the diplomatic dispute and is ready to face its past? Dr Hirano says, 'It took France and Germany more than 50 years to arrive at a common school history textbook. So I would not be surprised if it takes a couple of generations for the Japanese to come to terms with their history and some may still maintain quite different views about it.'


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