Japanese history textbooks used in schools are famous for whitewashing history. In particular there are three events they downplay or just plain leave out:
- The Nanjing Massacre (1937), also known as the Rape of Nanking or, as some Japanese textbooks call it, The Nanjing Incident. In this Incident the Japanese wiped out 300,000 Chinese, raping, even gang raping, many. This went way beyond any military necessity.
- Comfort women (1930s-1940s) – some 200,000 women the Japanese forced to become sex slaves for the army. They did this in Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Burma, etc. Japan apologized in 1993, but some want to take it back, denying there ever were sex slaves.
- The forced mass suicide of Okinawa (1945) – the Japanese army forced many Okinawans to kill themselves. A fourth of Okinawans died in the Battle of Okinawa.
There are other touches: invasion is called an “advance” into a country, the Korean independence movement is called an “uprising”, the passive voice is used to avoid pointing fingers at Japan, etc.
All this is made still worse by how the Japanese teach history. Like the Americans they:
- Teach names and dates – they are easy to test for. Students learn them so they can get into a good high school or university, but are left with a weak understanding of Japan’s place in the world.
- Push patriotism – the government wants students to be proud of their country.
- Seem to barely cover recent history – so that students will know more about samurai times, for example, than about the Second World War.
The Ministry of Education approves which textbooks schools can use. There are about seven or eight they approve for Year 8 (13 to 15-year-olds) that schools can pick from. They cover a range: some will, for example, talk about the Nanjing Massacre, some will put it in the footnotes, some will deny it ever took place.
While Japan looks at itself through rose-coloured glasses, its neighbours do not. They have no reason to. If anything, Japan’s whitewashing brings more attention in China and South Korea to Japan’s past misdeeds. All this causes the Japanese to misunderstand how they are seen by neighbouring countries.
Within Japan, some on the left want textbooks to be more truthful, while some on the right see that as “masochistic” and “anti-Japanese”. Some even see the Japanese Empire as a good thing: it was freeing Asia from Western powers!
Many countries whitewash their own history. China does it too, like leaving out the Tiananmen Square Massacre and calling the time after Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958 the Three Years of Economic Difficulty – leaving out the fact that 30 million died during the Difficulty!
The Japanese case becomes such a big deal because its misdeeds affect other countries and, having lost the war, it cannot cover them up. Had the Japanese Empire won and held onto Korea and China, comfort women and all the rest would have quietly disappeared from the history books.