The Sins of Japan’s History Revisionists

Philip Cunningham, a China hand often seen on CCTV-9 (and who I wrote about in this blog two years ago) has written a scathing column denouncing Japan’s systematic revision of its history books to make it appear the Nanjing massacre was a minor incident (if it happened at all).

The United States, ever quick to criticize China for human rights abuses, has of late been remarkably silent about Japan’s ethical lapses, current and historical.

Japanese politicians and publishers have made a cottage industry of denying the 1937 Nanking Massacre in which the Japanese killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in the old Chinese capital. This is an offense to Chinese sensibilities comparable with Holocaust denial in Europe. In recent months, major publishers and broadcasters have been bullied to conform and self-censor in accord with the rising tide of resurgent militarism. That tacit government approval is given to such xenophobic, right-wing thinking can be seen in the latest Ministry of Education-approved school texts that erase or evade critical lessons drawn from Japan’s bad behavior in its war of aggression.

In the “New History Textbook,” the Nanking Massacre is dismissed as a controversial “incident.” And the war of invasion is no longer termed an invasion. New textbooks drop references to “comfort women,” sex slaves of mostly Chinese and Korean origin who were forced to service Japanese fighting men in the field. To borrow a phrase from the late writer Iris Chang, the abused women are being raped a second time, this time by defenders of the Japanese army who attempt to erase them from memory.

This is one where you’ll want to read it all. I agree with many of his points, but it’s important to remember that Cunningham is always (or at least mostly) anti-America and pro-CCP. (He definitely knows where his bread is buttered.)

I think the US is taking its usual “pragmatic” approach to this issue — Japan is an important ally and it’s not worth risking the relationship over this emotionally charged issue. I’m not saying this is the right approach, and I believe we should demand that Japan live up to its past. But in the world of realpolitik, and at a time when China is receiving a barrage of criticism, I wouldn’t expect our policy to change one iota.

(Thanks for the link, Tian.)

The Discussion: 28 Comments

A Hong Kong girl posted a thread on the messageboard asking that the Chinese government include the Tiananmen Square Massacre in their history books, and her thread got deleted.

April 11, 2005 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

Surprise, surprise.

But we expect that of the Chinese government, which censors just about everything. It’s more startling that an advanced, wealthy, literate nation like Japan continues to deny its past. In both cases, it sucks.

April 11, 2005 @ 3:30 pm | Comment

Yesterday I spent my history class discussing the roots of the demonstrations (most of my kids live in the embassy district so had a backseat) and read a number of sections from Japanese textbooks- the main ones used. One indeed did refer to Nanjing as an ‘incident’- the “Great Nanking Massacre Incident”, and went on to say “On that occasion the Japanese troops killed many Chinese, including soldiers who had surrendered or been captured, and went on a rampage of looting, burning, and raping. ” Nearly all described Japan’s actions as an invasion. All stated that no declaration of war was given as one commented on how the Japanese from around 1940 embarked on ” a three-pronged campaign to burn, kill, and plunder was set in motion against anti-Japanese strongholds in northern China, and it had a devastating impact on the lives and the livelihoods of the Chinese masses.”
Where do US or British school books (the ones I had as a kid) list all their atrocities? Can someone please reder me to any site that has translated sections of these textbooks in question? There must one if Chinese can go nuts over this with any justification. It would help too if I knew which schools used them (I’ve heard in comments here that only 2 schools in Tokyo use them).

April 11, 2005 @ 4:13 pm | Comment

“The United States, ever quick to criticize China for human rights abuses, has of late been remarkably silent about Japan’s ethical lapses, current and historical.”

A few comments:

I might be wrong but I don’t think that United States is officially criticizing any countries because of the way they write their own history.

Has there been any recent changes in the US stance towards “Japan’s ethical lapses, current and historical”?

I don’t think there is relatively little to criticize Japan for when it comes to human right abuses in recent times.

I would like to make the comment that United States seems to have become more quiet in regards to abuses in China. Recently by not putting forward a resolution to denounce China’s rights record before the UN Human Rights Commission.

That is probably because of the “pragmatic” approach mentioned.

April 11, 2005 @ 4:19 pm | Comment

Garbo, exactly — that is what “pragmatism” is all about: money and power over “mere morality.”

April 11, 2005 @ 4:40 pm | Comment

Richard, it’s a Hong Kong messageboard, owned by a company that is owned by Li Ka Shing, supposedly the richest man in Asia. He supports, or at least sucks up to the Communist Party.

April 11, 2005 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

Whenever another country talks about Chinese human rights, China goes “oh yeah, well what about yours?” So here’s a little trick I learned from my buddies:
Nothing makes me angrier than to hear the Chinese government complain about historical revisionism, which is technically their area of expertise. What percentage of students in Japan will be using this book? Less than 1%, something like 0.35%? And what percent of students in China get boo-hoo nationalist bullshit crammed down their throats starting from elementary school? About 100%. Have any of you guys read a Chinese modern history textbook. I think that “whitewash” would be athe nicest possible way to put it.
I just gotta say that I think Japan has the moral high ground on this one. The Chinese have succeeded in killing more Chinese than Japan could ever do.

April 11, 2005 @ 10:10 pm | Comment


Calm down, is similar to Cosmospolitan magazine. It is not the most appropriate site to talk about history and politics in there. Besides I tend to agree with what ??? had posted in that message board.

April 11, 2005 @ 10:44 pm | Comment

For those of you who are not familiar with Kevin’s posts, go search what he said about China in the past. His obnoxious comments second only to bellevue.

April 11, 2005 @ 10:50 pm | Comment

An excellent analysis in the Int. Herald Tribune today on the China/Japan dispute. The writer pin points the problem as Japan’s desire for a place on the Security Council. Basically, the author Phil Bowring says China is being knotheaded and selfish about opposing Japan’s desire to join.

China can certainly take that position, but to cause protests, damages and potential injuries really makes China appear to be an immature nation.

April 11, 2005 @ 11:15 pm | Comment


The fact is Korea government had already said they are adamant against Japan joining the UN security council. The CCP, on the other hand, has not yet claimed the same position. In my opinion, Japan should not be allowed into the UN security council if they can’t even apologize for their WW2’s atrocities.

April 11, 2005 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

I was at Fudan University when Koizumi visited the Lugou bridge and apologized for Japan’s past aggression. My teacher waxed lyrical about it the day after, but I wonder how many Chinese still remember that now.

Kevin above does make a valid point about the textbook in question being on the extremely small fringe. No, JR, I’m not familiar with his other comments, but I know an ad hominem attack when I see one.

To state the obvious, the Chinese government needs Japan as a bogeyman to divert its people frustration from itself, much the same way Arab governments do Israel and, to a lesser extent, the US.

Slightly off-topic:
Cunningham is a China hand? He sure isn’t a Thailand hand.

April 12, 2005 @ 12:02 am | Comment

just to make things clear, i think there must be more than one kevin, cuz i haven’t written here for quite a while, and don’t really know JR.

April 12, 2005 @ 12:05 am | Comment

The recent rise in anti-Japanese sentiment among many Chinese mainlanders reached new heights last weekend with the staging of a number of anti-Japanese street demonstrations, some of which attracted crowds of up to 10,000 people. While most demonstrators protested peacefully, significant numbers nevertheless turned violent, vandalising Japanese shops and restaurants with bricks.

The rise of anti-Japanese sentiment on the Chinese mainland has been largely facilitated by the internet. Over the last few years, the number of Chinese run anti-Japanese websites has mushroomed. While such hate-mongering is a feature of extremist internet chat-rooms around the world, in China xenophobia towards the Japanese appears to be on the increase. In the past two years, small anti-Japanese protests have mushroomed into nationwide campaigns through the internet, as last weekend’s demonstrations have shown.

This alarming phenomenon raises a few fundamental questions. Why does the need to attach to and worship an omnipotent object require scapegoating? And why is nationalism always bound up with the necessity for an “enemy?”

Where human beings imagine a nation – an omnipotent, benevolent entity that is to be honoured, embraced and loved – they also bring into being through their imaginations an “enemy.” The enemy also is an omnipotent entity, but now a malevolent one. Just as the idea of the devil sustains the idea of god, so does the idea of the enemy sustain the idea of the nation. The enemy is our split off hostility, our own wish to abandon the object which we love and to which we have submitted.

Love of one’s nation and hatred of the enemy are two sides of the same coin. In order to love Germany unreservedly, Hitler needed to create a Jew. In order to love imperial America so enthusiastically and loyally, all post World War II administrations relied on Cold War enemies, and now that such enemies no longer exist, Americans have the so-called “Axis of Evil” to combat, along with the handful of identifiable “terrorists” such that states are said to support. In Australia and Britain these days, we are threatened by the queue-jumper – the uninvited asylum-seeker.

What are the dynamics of this mechanism that requires hatred (and destruction) in order to sustain love?

I suspect that the splitting mechanism described above grows out of a widespread ambivalence towards the nation state. In order for people to maintain an attachment to their country (or culture), and to be able to go on believing in its absolute goodness, they have to have another place to locate their hostility.

People need to split off their perception that the country that they love is also bad and destructive, in addition to being good. The “other” is the place into which they project the destructiveness that has its source in their own nation. This is little different to the way that individuals often deflect their own feelings of self-hatred onto others – usually onto those around them, on those they love the most.

The German nation and its leaders were responsible for the deaths of over two million German soldiers in the First World War. Hitler was there at the Western front. He saw his comrades continually being blown to bits. He witnessed the endless mutilation of their bodies. He was well acquainted with the horror and destructiveness of war. He could not help but know that his fellow soldiers were being sent to their deaths by his own society and its leaders.

Yet – and this fact is the source of everything that was to follow – Hitler never (consciously) could blame or express hatred towards his own nation. He would state in Mein Kampf that, in spite of what had occurred in the war, nevertheless it would have been a “sin to complain.” After all, were the soldiers not “dying for Germany?”

Hitler’s wish to maintain belief in the “goodness” of Germany, his refusal to acknowledge the badness contained within his own nation, caused him to repress or deny hostility. In order to maintain trust in Germany, Hitler projected the source of the nation’s suffering, the cause of its destruction, onto the Jew. The Jews symbolised split off hostility toward Germany, Hitler’s own wish to separate from, to abandon the hegemonic project (which oppressed him just as it oppressed everyone else).

One of the dynamics of today’s Western culture is that hostility toward the nation, recognition of its destructiveness or imperfection, is split off and localised within intellectuals or academics. Within the arena of public life and debate, there is little criticism of the nation and its leaders. In the academic sphere, on the other hand, criticism of and hostility toward the nation are common.

Split off ambivalence is projected onto a particular class of persons, the intellectuals or “academics” who function to express hostility and skepticism toward the otherwise beloved nation. This class of persons “contains” the ambivalence experienced by everyone, permitting hostility to be repressed or disavowed by the majority culture.

Thus, the wish to attach to an omnipotent object and to disconnect from it, love and hatred for one’s nation and its people, the desire to identify and to abandon identification, are contained within a single cultural dynamic or system.

The “war movement” and the “peace movement” go hand in hand. Each constitutes one element of a single dynamic or system. Whenever a war occurs, a “peace movement” is required so that persons have a place into which they can split off the repressed perception that war is destructive and pathological. Peace movements are part of war movements.

Now that the Cold War is over, and China now a part of the global capitalist system, Japan, for historical reasons, has emerged as the new enemy. The Chinese media, of course, must shoulder a considerable amount of the blame, in the same way that the Australian media must shoulder much of the blame for manipulating public emotions over the asylum-seeker issue and the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The impression that most Chinese and Koreans have, thanks to inaccurate and emotionally-charged reporting, is that the controversial text in question is mandatory. It is not. Most Japanese teachers would protest any moves to make it mandatory. Let us get a few facts straight about this textbook issue:

It is true that Japanese textbooks are screened by the government. Each public and private school selects one history textbook from a list of seven or eight authorised by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Monbukagakusho) every four years. This screening process lasts one year. Japanese textbook companies submit manuscripts to the Ministry of Education, whose appointed committees examine them according to prescribed criteria. The Ministry offers the textbook companies opportunities to revise their drafts, and copies of the Ministry-approved manuscripts are then available for consideration by the local districts.

The hot issue of how Japanese history is presented in school textbooks dates back to 1965, when Saburo Ienaga, a prominent historian, filed the first of his three lawsuits against the Ministry of Education charging that the process of textbook approval was unconstitutional and illegal. The Ministry had rejected Ienaga’s history textbook because it contained “too many illustrations of the ‘dark side’ of the war, such as an air raid, a city left in ruins by the atomic bomb, and disabled veterans.”

Then, in 1982, the screening process in Japan became a diplomatic issue when the media of Japan and neighbouring countries extensively covered changes required by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry had ordered Ienaga to remove critical language in his history textbook, insisting that he write of the Japanese army’s “advance into” China instead of its “aggression in” China and of “uprising among the Korean people” instead of the “March First Independence Movement.” Pressure applied by China and Korea succeeded in getting the Ministry to back down and resulted in the Ministry adding a new authorisation criterion: that textbooks must show understanding and international harmony in their treatment of modern and contemporary historical events involving neighbouring Asian countries. The Supreme Court of Japan unanimously upheld the Ministry’s right to continue screening textbooks though, so Saburo Ienaga and his fellow critics enjoyed only a partial victory – but an important one nevertheless.

Now what followed from this was a backlash by the more chauvinistic – the more pathologically nationalistic. It is little different really from the backlash that occurred in Australia in response to the way textbooks were dealing with the past. Historians like Henry Reynolds along with journalists like John Pilger had helped to bring about an entire sea shift in attitudes about Australia’s past: the land had been stolen, the original inhabitants almost decimated. What had occurred was nothing less than genocide. But then an election occurred, and a new government came to power, whose leader, the present Prime Minister, attacked this view, this new openness and honesty, labeling it the “black armband view of history.”

The same backlash occurred in Japan over the way the nation’s history was being presented. A conservative movement toward reform in the Japanese history curriculum was initiated in the early 1990s by Nobukatsu Fujioka and his Liberal View of History Study Group. Fujioka, a professor of education at Tokyo University, set out to “correct history” by emphasising a “positive view” of Japan’s past and removing from textbooks any reference to matters associated with what he calls “dark history.”

By early 2000 Fujioka and his group had joined with others to form the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, now headed by Kanji Nishio. It is the Society’s textbook, THE NEW HISTORY TEXTBOOK (one of eight junior high school history textbooks authorised by the Ministry of Education in April 2001), that has caused much debate in Japan over the past few years.

Widespread protests against the textbook erupted in Japan itself, as well as in China and North and South Korea. In December 2000, reacting to a draft textbook circulated by the Society and shown on national television, a long list of Japanese historians and history educators expressed misgivings about the content of THE NEW HISTORY TEXTBOOK and its rendering of Japan’s past. Their complaints centred around the text’s presentation of Japan’s foundation myths as historical fact and its characterisation of wars launched by modern Japan as wars to liberate Asia.

The intellectuals’ appeal to people inside and outside Japan appeared on the Internet prior to authorization of the textbook by the Ministry. Following authorization, their voices were joined by an international group of scholars. They aimed to “ensure that textbooks are consistent with values of peace, justice, and truth.” It declared THE NEW HISTORY TEXTBOOK “unfit as a teaching tool because it negates both the truth about Japan’s record in colonialism and war and the values that will contribute to a just and peaceful Pacific and world community.”

Under the Japanese system, local school authorities determine whether the new textbook is to be used in district classrooms. On August 15, the deadline for school districts to make their selections, Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi reported in The Japan Times that the new textbook had been shunned and that nearly all of Japan’s school districts had rejected it. The current controversy refers to an updated version of the one released in 2001. The China Daily, on April 12, did, to its credit, point out the fact that “the book was adopted in 2002 by only about 0.03 per cent of schools following objections from local education boards and teachers.”

Most Japanese teachers are strongly opposed to this kind of revisionism, as are most Japanese people. I know, because I used to live in Japan. In fact, I spent a year teaching at a government high school in Yokosuka.

The Japanese government, like just about all other governments in this world, seeks to distort their nation’s past and present – and such distortions certainly do need to be challenged. The people of China and Korea are right to protest. American and Australian WWII veterans certainly complain about their treatment in Japanese prisoner of war camps as well, and they too are very sensitive to the way in which Japanese textbooks present their shared histories. What is worrying though, is the way that these protests are very often expressed – not as protests against a specific Japanese government policy, but rather as an expression of hatred for the Japanese, as a collective, as a people.

Anybody who has ever lived in South Korea, and I lived and taught there for two years, will know that Koreans suffer from a kind of collective trauma – their deep-rooted emotional insecurity is a product of the past failings of their imagined community. Rebuilding themselves as an independent nation post Korean War has been fraught with pain and ambiguity. The intense, some might say extreme nationalism of most Koreans (and most Koreans are certainly flag-worshippers) expresses itself also as its flipside: they are oversensitive to any perceived slights against their country or culture, because of their ambivalence and insecurity – emotions which they deflect onto others, displacing their anger onto the Japanese.

What is needed is some healing, not a heightening of the conflict and aggression so characteristic of all national chauvinism. To expose and reveal the shared fantasies that sustain the cultural process is to take the first steps toward awakening from the nightmares of all our shared histories.

Best Regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

April 12, 2005 @ 12:39 am | Comment


Thank you for the link, it is a very nice gesture of Koizumi to personally apologize to the Chinese people. I think he should convince the Japanese government to make a SINCERE official apology to China to put a closure on this issue. I noticed the former Japan PM had made a similar apology to China before. And the CCP was eager TO ADVERTISE the Japanese PM’s apology to the Chinese public to improve the Sino-Japnese relationship. The information is in a previous thread in here.

April 12, 2005 @ 12:49 am | Comment

anyone familiar with JR’s comments can guess exactly what he is going to say before he can say it. Thank you for brushing over the content in my comment, and calling me “obnoxious.” it’s a trick commonly used by people unable to reply to the content of others’ arguments.

i am a peaceful person, but I think Chinese society at the moment is very non-peaceful. i have a number of japanese friends and co-workers, and find Chinese opinions towards Japanese rather, well, overboard. We had two Japanese students here in Shanghai beaten Saturday with a beer bottle and ashtray… but of course no reports on that, no condemnation, only denials. Now that’s what I call revisionism.

April 12, 2005 @ 12:51 am | Comment


I was trying to look up the past comments. Unfortunately, comments are unsearchable in this web site.

Anyway, may I ask, do you speak or read Chinese? Why are you in China? (Don’t worry I am not going to use the Republican line of “love it or leave it.)

April 12, 2005 @ 1:06 am | Comment

Again, someone in here please inform the BBC news: only 0.35% of Japanese history textbooks are whitewashing the WW2’s atrocities.


Historical difference

The Japanese government, which says it can only press textbooks to be amended if they contain factual errors, has said it is up to individual school districts to decide which books they use.

China and South Korea say the books underplay Japan’s military occupations of Asian countries in the first half of the 20th Century.

One book refers to the Japanese slaughter of some 300,000 civilians in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1937 as an “incident”, rather than the “massacre” it is known as elsewhere.

The seven other texts approved on Tuesday are also accused of dispensing with the kind of detail Japan’s neighbours say is necessary for a balanced account.

Only one of the books gives figures for the number of civilians killed in the Nanjing Massacre, while the others say “many people” died.

April 12, 2005 @ 1:14 am | Comment

it kind of freaked me out that you know that i am “in China” at the moment. i won’t be telling you my address, hehe.
anyway, yes, i am in China. and I do speak and read Chinese. have been studying it about 8 years now, and i work as a translator, so there isn’t much i can’t read… otherwise, i’d get fired.

April 12, 2005 @ 1:24 am | Comment

Mark Anthony Jones,

You always have a lot of really interesting stuff to say, and yet, your comments are WAY too long for haloscan! For god’s sake, man! Start your own blog! I’d love to read what you have to say in a more eye-friendly format!


April 12, 2005 @ 2:08 am | Comment

Thanks Lisa. I always enjoy reading your comments too, and in fact, I find that I normally agree with most of what you have to say.

My understanding of nationalism, incidentally, has been greatly influenced by my reading of Benedict Anderson’s classic book, Imagined Communities. This, together with my reading of both Freud and Marx, is what enabled me to formulate my comments above.

Being a secondary school history teacher for 13 years, I have a particular interest in the politics surrounding school textbooks, and in how history is represented. School textbooks in Britain and the United States also leave a lot to be desired as far as I am concerned, and Chinese school textbooks are also at times very “interesting” in the way they represent the nation’s past.

Best regards,
Mark Anthony Jones

April 12, 2005 @ 2:32 am | Comment

Dear Mark,

It’s been a long time since I’ve laid eyes on a US history textbook, but my recollection is they do leave a lot to be desired – but this really speaks to how history is approached in middle school/high school in general. It’s given extremely short-shrift – I remember that my history classes NEVER made it all the way to the present day, and even so, topics were condensed and dealt with in an extremely shallow manner.

We need more history taught in high school. Kids graduate learning very little about American history and even less about the rest of the world.

April 12, 2005 @ 10:36 am | Comment

I, too, heard that 0.3% figure, which — if I’m not mistaken and Kevin slightly so — is reported as the percentage of schools that use
the textbook that’s been the focus of Chinese outrage. And I heard it on the BBC World Service.

As for the link, you’re welcome. I thought at first that you needed it, but now it seems you’ve known all along about the apology. Why then did you say “Japan should not be allowed into the UN security council if they can’t even apologize for their WW2’s atrocities” in a previous comment? Memory lapse? Don’t worry, many of us (not least the Chinese) have that problem, too.

In addition, while I realize that the Chinese media did give a lot of publicity to the apology at the time, I strongly disagree that it was done in a bid to improve the Sino-Japanese relations. If that were the case, they would be playing it up now, would’t they?

April 12, 2005 @ 11:03 am | Comment

Tom, can you please direct me to the post on Philip Cunningham and Thailand – I couldn’t get the link to open. (If it’s written in Thai, can you give me a summary in English? Thanks!!)

April 12, 2005 @ 11:14 am | Comment


You said 0.3%, Kevin said 0.35%, ACB said 0.5%, Muninn said 1%. The figure no matter how small one wants to describe does not change the nature of the fact. It is not about the freedom of speech or freedom of press. But about the Japanese history textbooks purposedly made to distort the truths to the next generations of Japanese people. Don’t you think Japanese students deserve to know what’s really going on in WWII?

About the PM’s apology, please reread what I said before. They were not an OFFICIAL and SINCERE apology from Japan. Like I said for the fifth time here (at least), Japan government needs to SINCERELY apologize for its WWII’s atrocities. We all need a closure and move on, otherwise we will have the same arguments here again and again.

(I know I will be saying this again soon.)

April 12, 2005 @ 3:49 pm | Comment

We can debate what constitutes “sincere” and “official”, but those qualifications were not present in your April 11, 2005 11:27 PM comment, which I quoted directly.

Yes, Japanese children deserve to know WWII history. Everyone does. And not just WWII. I believe that if everybody in the world knew accurately everything there is to be known about history, the world would be a very peaceful, level-headed, and empathic place. Those are not exactly the adjectives one would use to describe the Chinese rioters, are they? Don’t you think the Chinese deserve access to accurate history, too?

Funny, I just saw on the BBC a young Chinese demonstrator who, like JR, said flat-out that Japan had never apologized.

April 12, 2005 @ 10:47 pm | Comment

Perhaps the server was encountering some problems. The link should work fine now: Philip Cunningham.

Despite its length, I think the post is worth reading as a case study of how a cocksure international correspondent can thoroughly foul up coverage of a country they have no idea about. Of course, prejudice doesn’t help, either.

April 12, 2005 @ 10:59 pm | Comment

“Funny, I just saw on the BBC a young Chinese demonstrator who, like JR, said flat-out that Japan had never apologized.”

Very funny indeed, there is nothing more I want to add, good luck with your book. {shudder}

April 13, 2005 @ 5:45 am | Comment

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