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Friday, January 7, 2011
Step into Japan's Moccasins
(It's not all that often that I repost an article to the American Action Report. It's rarer still for me to repost one of my own articles. Every couple of years or so, the wording of Japanese history books becomes a major political issue for the Chinese Communist Party in China, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan, and perhaps other countries. The Japanese are accused of not being contrite enough in their wording of accounts of their role in World War II.
The real purpose of the controversy is to keep Japan in a post-war doghouse in order to give more leeway to Beijing's hegemonic ambitions. Below, without changes, is a letter I wrote to the Taipei Times almost six years ago. Since the new textbooks should be coming out by spring, I thought I'd get the jump on Beijing and their quislings.)
During the controversy over the precise wording of Japanese history books, I was coincidentally engaged in a study of cultural and other influences that go into the writing of textbooks. The failure to consider these influences generates more heat that light in any textbook debate.
Although restitution to victims of Japanese atrocities during World War II is of concern to this letter writer, it is outside the scope of this particular letter.
The main purpose of education is for each generation to pass its values to succeeding generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in social sciences such as history.
Unfortunately, no nation succeeds in living up to its own values on a consistent basis. The loftier the values, the greater the discrepancy. To further complicate matters, a textbook is useless if schools choose not to assign it. If a high school history book told Japanese children that their kindly old grandfathers were sadistic rapists, thieves and murderers, their only buyers would be Japan's enemies in Beijing -- history's most prolific mass murderers.
Writers of history textbooks face disadvantages not faced by writers of popular histories found in bookstores. (Ironically, it's the popular histories that save history from the fate of being no more than "a set of lies, agreed upon.") They find themselves carefully selecting words and facts in order to promote the values they wish to impart. The best they can hope to produce is a textbook in which inconvenient facts are sacrificed on the altar of truth.
In A Nation Grows, the US history book I selected for my study, I found dozens of dubious passages. To give only a few examples, the seizure of Native American lands was compared to the immigration of Europeans to New York City. [AAR Note: This referred to the English supplanting the Dutch in New Amsterdam and renaming the place New York City.] The Trail of Tears, along which 4,000 of my fellow Cherokees and thousands of other Native Americans were forced to travel, was given only five words, with no mention of what had taken place. The only Revolutionary War battles described took place in four Northeastern states.
New England's virtual monopoly on the importation of slaves was described in the passive voice -- thus leaving the culprits unnamed. Scornful fingers were pointed at Southerners.
Andrew Carnegie was praised for his supposed concern for the poor, while his depredations on the poor were condemned without mentioning him by name. One of the authors of A Nation Grows was a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University.
The concern over Japanese history texts is valid, but critics should view those concerns within a cultural context. The challenge is how the Japanese can promote the best of their history while facing the fact that the Japanese -- like the Chinese and the Taiwanese -- have not always lived up to their own best values.
Perhaps Beijing would like to produce a history book that accurately portrays the murder of 65 million Chinese by their fellow Chinese since 1949, the cultural genocides in Tibet and Turkestan and other shameful acts. Perhaps Taiwan's history textbooks should be similarly larded with mea culpas. By walking a mile in Japan's moccasins, Japan's critics may realize the enormity of the task they demand of the Japanese.
They may also realize that Beijing's histrionics have nothing to do with historical justice and everything to do with power politics in the Pacific.