Crusader tries to awaken Japan

Japan's Past, Japan's Future
December 14, 2001

For the past four decades, the Japanese government has tried to censor what is taught about history to secondary-school students. For just as long, Saburo Ienaga has crusaded as the conscience of Japan, battling in the courts and media to protect intellectual freedom and to challenge the arbitrary intrusion of the state in matters of education. His battle has been marked by more setbacks than victories. He is a tragic hero whose moral probity and doomed persistence against the powers that be stand as an indictment of a society that has stood by, apathetically complicit in the whittling away of constitutional freedoms and the hollowing out of democracy. Japan may suffer from an organised collective amnesia, but Ienaga and like-minded citizens have made it their mission to remedy this malady.

Ienaga is convinced that prewar Japanese education facilitated the outbreak of the second world war, and that postwar education has failed to teach the lessons of that war. He stands for a forthright rendering of Japan's past to expose the role of conservatives in leading Japan into the abyss. He has challenged the constitutionality of the textbook screening process whereby the ministry of education has arbitrarily censored and moulded the narrative in ways that deliberately gloss over atrocities and excesses committed by Japan's imperial forces against fellow Asians. Rather than glorifying or whitewashing this sordid chapter in Japan's history, Ienaga argues that the suffering endured by victims of Japanese militarism will have been in vain unless young people learn the lessons of that tragedy.

Ienaga describes the stifling prewar atmosphere when the state imprisoned and killed people for harbouring dangerous thoughts, reading the wrong books or speaking up against government policies. Educators worked to brainwash students into becoming soldiers of the state. He expresses shame at his own inaction in failing to oppose the warmongering policies that consumed the media and public. His lapse at that time is what has motivated his post-war struggle.

Though a hero and inspiration to many older Japanese, Ienaga is vilified by conservatives and harassed by rightwing thugs. The conservative stance is that the war was forced on Japan by western colonial powers. Ienaga says that this fails to acknowledge Japanese aggression in China from 1931, which precipitated the conflict. He also dismisses the notion that Japan was fighting to liberate Asia from the yoke of western colonialism, and regards the war as an effort to impose Japanese imperialism. He argues that the Japanese invasion of western colonies in Southeast Asia was driven by the need to secure resources to win the war in China and was not a noble crusade to help other Asians.

Thus for Ienaga, the millions of Japanese who died in the war were needlessly sacrificed by the militarists. "In the war, Japanese learned firsthand that the military never protects the people. Not only starting a war that was hopeless, but also calling for 'decisive battle on the home islands' right up to the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, when if they had stopped the war millions of their countrymen would have survived: from these facts, isn't it crystal clear that the military considers the lives of the people as so much worthless rubbish?" He ponders "how to give meaning to these meaningless deaths. How? By working to keep such a tragedy from happening again; then and only then will the deaths of the victims be not meaningless but revered sacrifices." This means exposing atrocities and holding wartime leaders accountable for their choices and shedding the cloak of victimisation that the government has promoted among Japanese. Those who seek to cover up, minimise or shift blame for the excess of the imperial forces only add to Japan's shame.

Shrugging off his setbacks in the courts, Ienaga points out that the act of challenging the state and exposing it to greater scrutiny in the name of asserting rights enshrined in the constitution has been a struggle worth fighting. Indeed, procedures for the certification of textbooks have become more transparent and the government has become more hesitant about trampling on intellectual freedom. In the process, the public has learnt about the buffoonish logic of the censors and there is greater understanding "that certification, under the pretense of deciding the educational merit of specific examples, is in fact the attempt to force into the textbooks the historical view that the authorities favour and to expunge from the textbooks the history the authorities don't like".

Japan's Past, Japan's Future conveys the author's passionate regard for principle, his fascinating perspectives on a tumultuous era in Japanese history and commitment to democracy. Whether challenging university administrators or government censors, he has demonstrated an opposition to arbitrary abuse of power by those entrusted by the people to carry out the duties of governance according to the rule of law and the constitution. One hopes that his struggles have not been in vain, but very few young Japanese have heard of him. Instead, they flock to the Dr Feelgoods of Japanese history such as Nishio Kanji, Nobukatsu Fujioka and Yoshinori Kobayashi. The public appetite for such pabulum appears undiminished. Their Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform has produced a new textbook that has passed the ministry of education's screening process, despite protests from neighbouring governments outraged at the biased coverage of their shared history with Japan. Glossing over the past seems back in fashion, and the reactionary targets of Ienaga's struggle must be gloating that their blinkered history is returning to the classroom. One wonders whether their agenda of stoking young people's pride in their nation can still be achieved by such means and if so, what are the implications?

Jeff Kingston is professor of history, Temple University, Japan.

Japan's Past, Japan's Future: One Historian's Odyssey

Author - Saburo Ienaga
ISBN - 0 7425 0988 5 and 0989 3
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Price - £57.00 and £14.95
Pages - 203
Translator - Richard H. Minear

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