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Discussion Paper 4 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 4 March 2008

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Japan's History Textbook Controversy

Social Movements and Governments in East Asia, 1982-2006


Daiki Shibuichi

About the Author


In Japan, the depiction of history and society in school textbooks has long been a subject of dispute. Japanese conservatives, especially intellectuals, have regarded this issue as an ideological struggle against Japanese progressives who – according to the conservative view – are trying to use public education to mold students into leftist cosmopolitans who feel no affection for their country, traditions or history. The conservatives have also opposed Korea and China for presuming to 'interfere' with Japanese sovereignty by pressuring the Japanese government to modify the contents of school textbooks. Conversely, Japanese progressives have perceived this issue as a struggle against conservatives who – in their eyes – wish to make the students reactionary chauvinists oblivious of Japan's modern history of oppression. As foreign participants in the dispute, Korea and China are concerned with how Japanese imperialism and invasions are depicted in Japanese textbooks. Korea and China have strongly protested to the Japanese government when they deemed it necessary.

In this light, how did the movements of Japanese conservatives and progressives to influence textbooks and education develop? Who were the main actors in the dispute? This paper will focus on these questions, while also examining the political implications of the dispute, and will propose that outcomes of interactions between the conservative textbook movement and the opposing progressive counter-movement, as well as diplomatic and civilian protests by Korea and China, were closely linked to diplomatic decision-making by the governments of Japan, Korea and China.

Conservative Japanese politicians and their opponents began quarreling over the contents of school textbooks in 1955 when certain politicians criticized school textbooks as having been influenced by Marxists (Wani 2001). The Japanese government, in 1947, had already established a textbook authorization system in which the Ministry of Education screened drafts of textbooks to be published. In 1965, Professor Ienaga Saburō, a historian and writer of history textbooks, brought the first lawsuit against the government and its textbook authorization system. He indicted the government for the 'unconstitutional nature of its censorship.' A series of lawsuits brought against the government by Ienaga and his supporters continued until 1997 (Wani 2001). This ongoing dispute over the characterization of history and the ideological tone of Japanese school textbooks has seen three particularly severe flare-ups: in 1982, 1986 and 2001.

Regarding the first flare-up in 1982, Rose (1998) has provided a scholarly analysis. The main part of the volume is a study of the decision-making processes by both the Japanese and Chinese governments during the confrontation and later resolution of the dispute. The political dynamics of both Japan and China at the time were carefully examined. Rose did not stop there, but placed the dispute in the wider context of the bilateral history of China and Japan. However, the 1982 tumult examined by Rose was merely the first in the series of conflagrations. The dispute did not end there, but continued to unfurl. As Rose depicted it, in 1982 the Japanese progressive movement targeted mainly government policy-making by conservative politicians and the Ministry of Education. Afterwards, new participants with novel tactics entered the fray while others left. Around the mid 1980s, the counter-movement of Japanese conservative intellectuals aimed at publishing series of textbooks that asserted a Japanese nationalist identity had coalesced to become a substantial entity. By the end of 20th Century, the conservative counter-movement had evolved further and begun a head-on confrontation with a progressive movement that had also evolved.

First, this paper introduces the actors in the dispute. The main participants are certain conservative groups of Japanese intellectuals and politicians, and the opposing camp of progressive groups of Japanese intellectuals, trade unions, politicians, and selected mass media outlets, along with the governments of Korea and China, and Korean civilian groups. Second, this paper examines three major clashes in the history of the textbook dispute. Events in 1982, 1986 and 2001 are examined with a particular focus on the decision-making of the Japanese central government. Conditions and factors that affected the decision-making process are examined by comparing the three occasions.

Three Flare-Ups: 1982, 1986 and 2001

Conservative Participants in 1982

The summer of 1982 textbook dispute began to heat up around April 1981, when an article in the left-leaning weekly Asahi Jānaru criticized the conservative authors of a best-selling book (early 1981) that attacked certain school textbooks for left-leaning tendencies. This book, Gimon darake no chūgaku kyōkasho (Problematic Junior High School Textbooks), made conservative politicians, who had already been alarmed by the publication of textbooks with which they disagreed, pay closer attention to the textbook issue (Igarashi 1981). The main part of the book was written by a lecturer at Tsukuba University, Morita Masaaki. The Asahi Jānaru stated that Morita was very close to heavyweight LDP politicians Okuno Seiryō and Mitsuzuka Hiroshi, who were known conservatives. The Asahi Jānaru also stated that Morita and other authors of the book had an affinity with the World Peace Teaching Academy or Sekai Heiwa Kyōju Akademī, a group of some 2,500 conservative scholars, intellectuals and business figures (Ōhata 1981). The Asahi Jānaru noted that 60 percent of the budget of the Akademī was funded by the Unification Church. The Asahi Jānaru stressed the staunch anti-communist agenda of the Unification Church and its influence over the textbook issue. It suggested that the Akademī planned to influence Japanese intellectuals and to challenge the progressive Japanese Teachers' Union or Nihon kyōshokuin kumiai/Nikkyōso. Other than these conservative intellectuals and politicians, mass media such as the monthlies Shokun! (Gentlemen!) and Seiron (Righteous Opinion), and writers supporting the conservative position could also be considered part of the conservative intellectual side of the textbook dispute.

As the ruling party, the LDP was in a position to strongly influence the Ministry of Education. A group of politicians known as the 'education tribe' (bunkyō-zoku), who belonged to the LDP's Education Affairs Division (bunkyō-bukai), worked closely with the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education investigated manuscripts of textbooks for authorization by the state. The manuscripts were produced by teachers and lecturers commissioned by private publishing companies under certain guidelines (Rose 1998). The left-leaning monthly Sekai (The World) stated that this LDP education tribe comprised both 'hawks' and 'doves', of whom heavyweight LDP politicians Mitsuzuka Hiroshi, Inaba Osamu, Fujinami Takao, Mori Yoshirō, and Okuno Seiryō were considered the leading hawks by the progressives (Habara 1982). In this sense, conservative scholar Morita Masaaki's close relationship with Mitsuzuka and Okuno is worth noting. In October 1980, the LDP's Education Affairs Division formed the Sub-committee on the Textbook Problem or Kyōkasho mondai shō-iinkai specifically to deal with the issue of ideology. The Shō-iinkai, headed by Mitsuzuka (Asahi Shimbun 28 Feb 1981), pressured the Ministry of Education to tighten censorship of progressive expressions in manuscripts of textbooks.

Conservative Participants in 1986

The 1984 attempt to publish a conservative history textbook was advanced by a group of loosely affiliated conservative intellectuals belonging to the National Conference to Defend Japan or Nihon wo mamoru kokumin kaigi. They were displeased with the outcome of the 1982 dispute, in which the Japanese government made a major concession to placate Korea and China. This issue will be discussed in later sections. Conservative intellectuals tried to counterattack by adopting the new tactic of publishing their own history textbook. The Kokumin kaigi was established in 1981 by conservative intellectuals, business figures and cadres of some conservative trade unions; it later merged with the Association to Defend Japan or Nihon wo mamoru kai to become the Japan Conference or Nippon kaigi (Uesugi 2003a). Leading conservative intellectuals in the textbook movement of the mid-1980s were Murao Jirō, Professor Muramatsu Takeshi of Tsukuba University, Professor Kobori Keiichirō of Tokyo University and Professor Takigawa Seijirō of Kokugakuin University (Asahi Shimbun 24 May 1986). Various Kokumin kaigi activities had given the group a reputation among progressives as a noteworthy conservative organization. The Kokumin kaigi was known for petitioning local assemblies to pass resolutions approving the existence of Japan's Defense Forces. Progressives had maintained that the Defense Forces were unconstitutional and should thus be disbanded.

Conservative Participants in 2001

The main leader of the 2001 conservative movement to publish textbooks was Professor Fujioka Nobukatsu of Tokyo University, who had founded the Association for the Advancement of the Liberalist View of History or Jiyū-shugi shikan kenkyū-kai in July 1995. In 1996, Fujioka published a series of books stating that progressive ideologies were still dominant in Japanese school textbooks as well as in the way the Japanese people construed their history. His books sold well. In December 1996, Fujioka met an outspoken conservative ally, Professor Nishio Kanji of the University of Electro-Communications (Denki tsūshin daigaku), and they jointly founded the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform or Atarashii rekishi-kyōkasho wo tsukuru kai. Other main founding members of this group were popular comic strip writer Kobayashi Yoshinori and Professor Takahashi Shirō of Meisei University.

The Tsukuru kai internet homepage explained the founding members' reasons for establishment of the group. In early 1996, they learned that seven newly authorized junior high school history textbooks gave an explanation regarding the issue of 'comfort women'. This displeased them, as they felt that the progressive camp was prevailing in the ideological struggle over education. The comfort women dispute had continued throughout the 1990s, as groups of ex-comfort women brought lawsuits against the Japanese government, and the Korean government demanded the Japanese government reveal the real facts of the case (Nihon Keizai Shimbun 29 Nov 2001). This dispute over textbooks did not develop into an inter-governmental row, partly because the progressives generally had the upper hand. In mid-1996, the Asahi Shimbun reported, with an air of satisfaction, 'lenient censorship' by the Ministry of Education over the statements of comfort women in school textbooks (Asahi Shimbun 29 May 1996 Evening Edition, 29 June 1996 Evening Edition). Disturbed by such progressive successes, the Tsukuru kai's founding members tried to revive the conservative textbook movement. These conservative intellectuals had already become angry in 1993 when they learned that authorized history textbooks for senior high school students discussed comfort women.

Popular comic strip (manga) writer Kobayashi's participation in the Tsukuru kai was also noteworthy. Kobayashi is an example of famous modern comic strip writers who are influential among the young. In a popular comic series on politics and society, Kobayashi was a polemicist who generally maintained an anti-establishment stance. Having noticed the success of the progressive camp in the comfort women dispute, Kobayashi probably recognized that in the context of the textbook dispute, the progressive camp's position reflected the mainstream of society. He therefore joined the conservative textbook movement. Kobayashi's participation was crucial to the Tsukuru kai gaining support from youth and to forming a mass movement that played an important role in the latter stage of the dispute in 2001. From 1997 to 1999, the Tsukuru kai gained wide support from conservative intellectuals, including members of the Nippon kaigi, allowing it to engage in various activities. It held public symposia, its intellectuals published books and propagated their ideas in the right-leaning mass media, and its leaders argued with progressive celebrities on television symposia. In April 2000, the Tsukuru kai submitted a draft of its first history textbook to the Ministry of Education for authorization.

In April 2001, the Ministry of Education authorized the Tsukuru kai history textbook after ordering the authors to change certain parts and expressions. The battle between progressives and the conservatives entered a new stage in which both sides pressured local education boards. During the process of textbook authorization, manuscripts of textbooks that have passed the Ministry of Education's investigation are distributed to the 700 nationwide 'exhibition centers' for principals (of private schools), and local education boards (of state schools) to select the textbooks they wished to use (Rose 1998). The Tsukuru kai and its intellectual supporters propagated their ideas through the right-leaning mass media, and LDP conservative politicians pressured local education boards (Asahi Shimbun 11 July 2001). In addition to these conventional tactics with familiar participants, the conservative textbook movement introduced new tactics and participants. Fusō-sha, the company publishing the Tsukuru kai textbook, began to sell the authorized draft of the textbook as a 'commercial version' in bookshops nationwide (Asahi Shimbun 5 June 2001). This book sold some 710,000 copies and became a best-seller of the period (Uesugi 2003b). Furthermore, the conservative textbook movement had acquired grassroots support. The Tsukuru kai had local branches nationwide with a total membership of around 10,000. The grassroots members sent petitions to local education commissioners and also provided the commercial version of their history textbook to the principals of junior high schools, knowing that the principals' opinions could influence the decisions of local education boards (Asahi Shimbun, 4 July 2001).

Oguma and Ueno (2003) conducted research on one such grassroots branch of the Tsukuru kai. Oguma stated that the grassroots movement of the Tsukuru kai differed from conventional conservative movements in that the Tsukuru kai mass movement was 'based on a civic populism with individualistic participants, in contrast to conventional conservative movements based on traits of the traditional village community.' In the same study, Ueno further elaborated upon these grassroots members and offered data based on her survey. Among 29 subjects, 12 said they were company employees, 5 were housewives, 4 were students, 2 were public servants, 1 was a businessman, and 5 did not identify themselves.

The composition of the conservative camp participating in this textbook dispute changed over time. Changes in participant profiles reflect changes in Japanese society during the same period. The 2001 conservative textbook movement was especially intriguing in that conservative intellectuals were able to mobilize 'civic individuals', as noted by sociologist Oguma (Oguma and Ueno 2003). Indeed, this was different from other conservative movements based on common experiences and specific ties, as in the case of groups of bereaved families and retired military men in the movement to pressure Japanese Prime Ministers to visit the Yasukuni Shrine (Shibuichi 2005). Traditional regional networks of neighbors and relatives that often influenced the lives of the Japanese seemed to have no role either. Just like the progressives, the Japanese conservatives now had a civic or popular movement. It could even be said that in the future, this kind of popular conservative movement would be better able to relate to the youth or the masses than the progressive movements. The participation of a comic strip writer as a prominent leader may indicate that members, supporters and potential supporters of this conservative textbook movement are more flexible than adherents of the progressive counter-movement. As is often the case with progressive movements, the leaders of the progressive textbook movement were limited to traditional intellectuals such as writers, trade union leaders, university professors, journalists, and pacifist politicians.

Progressive Participants in 1982

Just as in the case of the conservative textbook movement, the composition of the progressive counter-movement also changed over time. Left-leaning mass media have always played the crucial role, but their major partners changed from various trade unions in 1982 to progressive citizens' groups in 2001. As for the mass media, the influential Asahi Shimbun and its affiliated weekly magazine, the Asahi Jānaru until the mid-1990s, and later the Shukan Kinyōbi, took the lead for the progressives and played a decisive role in all three cases. The monthly Sekai was yet another important participant. As for progressive political parties, opposition parties like the Japan Socialist Party or Nihon shakai tō, which later became the Social Democratic Party of Japan, or Shakai minshu tō and the Japan Communist Party or Nihon kyōsan tō also played their roles by criticizing the government in the Diet on all three occasions.

In the dispute culminating in 1982, several progressive labor unions and citizens' groups contended with conservative politicians and the Ministry of Education. On the trade union side, the mighty Nikkyōso was the most active. As of 1981, the Nikkyōso had a membership of approximately 727,000 elementary, junior high and senior high school teachers (Asahi Shimbun 4 April 1981). This number shows the dominant influence of Japanese progressives over the Japanese public education community. Other than the Nikkyōso, the General Council of Trade Unions of Japan or Zenkoku rōdōsha kumiai sōhyōgikai/Sōhyō, which included the Nikkyōso, was very much in evidence. The General Council of Mass Communication and Culture Trade Unions or Zenkoku masukomi-bunka rōso kyōto kaigi and the 15,000 members of the Japan Federation of Publishing Workers' Unions or Nippon shuppan rōdō kumiai rengōkai/Shuppan rōren also actively participated in the dispute. They held congresses and seminars, waged demonstrations and appealed to political parties, the Ministry of Education and the Diet in order to protest against censorship. The Shuppan rōren even went on strike in November 1981. The Shuppan rōren, whose members were involved in the production of textbooks, also provided the Asahi Shimbun with the latest detailed inside information on the Ministry of Education's censorship of school textbooks (Ishii 1981, Asahi Shimbun 11 March 1981, 21 March 1981).

The Asahi Shimbun reported that progressive citizens' groups also waded into the fray. In Tokyo's Setagaya ward, for example, teachers, housewives and disgruntled writers of school textbooks united and established the Setagaya Textbook Study Group or Setagaya kyōkasho kenkyūkai. They handed statements of protest to LDP headquarters and to the Ministry of Education. The Japan Pen Club or Nihon pen kurabu, formed by professional writers, also protested against the LDP and the Ministry of Education (Asahi Shimbun 16 July 1981). Well-known intellectuals, like writers Inoue Hisashi, Nosaka Akiyuki and Yasuoka Shōtarō, producer Kinoshita Junji and Professor Yamazumi Masami of Tokyo Metropolitan University, formed the Citizens' Assembly to Consider the Textbook Issue or Kyōkashomondai wo kangaeru shimin no tsudoi. Shimin no tsudoi opened an office in Tokyo and collected 124,418 signatures protesting against the LDP and the Ministry of Education. It also received 4,430,575 yen as contributions from citizens. Shimin no tsudoi was able to collect the signatures and donations in the relatively short period between June 1981 and April 1982. Shimin no tsudoi also met and pressured individual politicians. In addition, 110 faculty members of Tokyo Gakugei University jointly expressed protests against the government and the conservatives. They also made plans to hold public seminars on this issue. 105 faculty members of Chiba University and 99 from Miyagi University of Education followed suit (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition May, June, July, October, November 1981 and January, April, July, August, September 1982).

Progressive Participants in 1986

Trade unions such as the Nikkyōso and Shuppan rōren were still playing the main role in the dispute in 1986. In June 1986, the Nikkyōso emitted a statement criticizing the history textbook written by the conservative Kokumin kaigi. The Nikkyōso also published a 'white paper' and criticized the Ministry of Education as well as the Kokumin kaigi history textbook. The Nikkyōso held a seminar for the same purpose. The Shuppan rōren also protested against the Ministry of Education and the conservatives throughout the mid-1980s. In September of 1986, the approximately 2,600 strong Japanese Society for Historical Studies or Nihonshi kenkyūkai announced protests against the Kokumin kaigi history textbook (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition June, September 1986).

Progressive Participants in 2001

During the 2001 textbook dispute, various progressive citizens' groups participated in the textbook movement in different ways. In contrast, trade unions were no longer significant players. There are many examples of actions by citizens' groups. Professor Ienaga, who had been filing suits against the government since 1965, had a powerful support group. This support group of 263 members formed the National Liaison Conference for Considering the Issue of Textbooks and Education or Kyōkasho to kyōiku wo kangaeru zenkoku renrakukai (Asahi Shimbun 8 March 1998). A group of 889 historians issued a statement saying that the Tsukuru kai's conservative history textbook was 'not scientific.' Uesugi Akira, who headed the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan's War Responsibility or Nihon no sensō sekinin shiryō sentā, joined Professor Takashima Nobuyoshi of Ryukyu University in February 2001 in lodging a complaint against Fusō-sha, the publisher of the conservative textbook, at the Fair Trade Commission hoping to prohibit Fusō-sha from 'trying to sell its history textbooks in an unfair way.' Uesugi and Takashima insisted that by sending free samples of its history textbook to local education boards through supporters of the conservative textbook movement, Fusō-sha was 'violating the Anti-Monopoly Law.' In March, they again lodged a complaint at the Fair Trade Commission to 'prohibit (conservative) professor Nishio Kanji from denouncing other textbooks.' They made four separate complaints. A famous progressive scholar and professor of Tokyo University, Wada Haruki, and his colleagues jointly announced action against the Tsukuru kai history textbook. A group of 26 professors from Tokyo Gakugei University followed suit. A major leftist NGO 'Peace Boat' demonstrated in the streets against the conservative history textbook. The Nikkyōso and certain other affiliated teachers' unions criticized the conservative history textbook.

In April 2001, Tawara Yoshifumi, the head of Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21 or Kodomo to kyōkasho zenkoku netto 21, together with the aforementioned Peace Boat, announced a statement condemning the Ministry of Education for passing the conservative history textbook. Tawara Yoshifumi can be regarded as one of the key people in the 2001 progressive textbook movement. Tawara had the support of Professor Yamazumi, who had headed Shimin no tsudoi in 1982. Tawara, along with Professor Kan Sanjun of Tokyo University, established a network of more than 100 citizens' groups nationwide named Can You Give This to Children?: 'Dangerous Textbooks' National Network or Kodomoni watasemasuka? 'abunai kyōkasho' zenkoku nettowāku. Tawara's Netto 21 also sponsored a joint event held by a trade union of Japanese mass communications workers or Masukomi bunka kaigi and a trade union of Korean mass communications workers opposed to the conservative textbook. The Netto 21, together with 18 other citizens' groups, also held an assembly in Tokyo protesting the conservative textbook. On 11 June 2001, these citizens' groups, together with representatives from Korea and five other countries, demonstrated outside the Ministry of Education to protest against the ministry passing the conservative textbook. The members formed a 'human chain' and surrounded the Ministry of Education building. On this occasion, the conservatives also demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Education and confronted the progressives. On the following day, progressive citizens' groups demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Education together with Korean citizens' groups (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition January, February, March, April, May and June 2001).

The progressives have long complained about radical right-wing activists who intimidate others by using black vans to blare slogans and harass Nikkyōso assemblies. However, this time it was the progressive camp which resorted to extreme tactics. Professor Nishio Kanji, in the right-leaning monthly Seiron, complained that crowds of progressives had intruded into local government buildings and shouted and intimidated the education commissioners. He also stated that the progressives distributed pamphlets in the street libeling education commissioners sympathetic to the conservatives, and that they made phone calls threatening to harm the commissioners' families (Nishio 2001). It was not without reason that Nishio took such threats seriously. In August, the Tokyo headquarters of the Tsukuru kai was set on fire by the radical leftist group the Revolutionary Laborers' Association or Kakumeiteki rōdōsha kyōkai/ kakurōkyō (Asahi Shimbun 8 August 2001, 10 August 2001 Evening Edition). This 2001 conservative-progressive dispute ended in an overwhelming victory for the progressives. Only a handful of private schools and several public schools for the handicapped decided to adopt the conservative textbook (Asahi Shimbun 16 August 2001). The left-leaning monthly Sekai admitted that the act of arson was outrageous, but at the same time insisted that the decisions of local education boards not to choose the conservative textbook were not related to the arson incident (Yoshizawa 2001).

Accordingly, we can observe here the diminishing role of trade unions in the progressive textbook counter-movement, a trend which extends to other circumstances. As a platform for people to participate in movements, large, well-organized and permanent trade unions may not be very attractive at the present moment. Trade unions tend to require official membership as well as a commitment to their activities. In addition, in order to join a Japanese trade union, one usually must be a full-time employee of a company that has a trade union. Considering these restrictions and limitations, potential participants may instead prefer small, flexible, specialized ad hoc groups. Furthermore, nowadays it would be easier for small citizens' groups to stage a powerful movement than in the 1980s. Many such citizens' groups have nicely designed internet homepages for recruiting supporters and members. These citizens' groups can use the internet to easily contact and coordinate with each other.

Internationalizing the Textbook Dispute

Korea and China

In the Japanese textbook disputes of 1982, 1986, and 2001, both the Korean and Chinese governments participated as important actors. 1982 can be regarded as a turning point in the diplomacy of Northeast Asian countries, since this was the year that Japan first began quarreling with neighboring countries over historical issues. The Japanese political situation is explained in later sections. With regard to Korea, President Chun Doo-Hwan, who had succeeded President Park Chung-Hee after the latter's assassination in 1979, had achieved a secure grip on power by 1982. Diplomatically, the Chun administration had been offered strong public commitments to the defense of Korea from both the Reagan administration in America and the Nakasone government in Japan (Buzo 2002). However, it was also notable that around the summer of 1982 the Japan-Korea relationship was strained owing to their disagreement over the amount of economic aid passing from Japan to Korea. Seoul considered that it was entitled to favorable economic cooperation from Tokyo by virtue of its contribution to Japan's security, while Tokyo insisted on haggling. It is possible that this factor influenced the position the Korean government took in the textbook dispute of the summer of 1982 (Koh 1984). Meanwhile, the Korean elite's grievances against the Japanese had already accumulated by the time the Asahi Shimbun reported in 1982 that the Japanese government watered down expressions of imperialism in textbooks. Korean intellectuals and scholars had been closely examining Japanese history textbooks since the 1960s and had not found them satisfactory (Kobori 1982).

On the Chinese front, it has been pointed out that besides a Chinese sense of historical identity incompatible with that of the Japanese conservatives, factors such as China's domestic power struggles and changing foreign policy were related to the textbook dispute of 1982. Rose (1998) stated that in terms of China's domestic politics, it was around this time that the Deng-Hu-Zhao triumvirate, faced with a power struggle with certain elements of the People's Liberation Army that opposed the leadership's pro-US and pro-Japan policy, decided to take a tough stance on Japan. China's diplomacy at that time, she argued, was shifting away from the PRC-US-Japan 'alliance' of the 1970s to an increasingly independent stance. Investigating diplomatic and political backgrounds of Korea and China participating in the textbook disputes of 1986 and in 2001 are beyond the scope of this paper, however.

Interestingly, previously unseen actors joined the fray in 2001. The Korean civilian movement against the Japanese conservative textbook crossed the straits between the two countries and advanced their movement in Japan. It forged an alliance with the Japanese progressive movement. Other Korean citizens paralyzed the Japanese Ministry of Education's internet homepage by swamping it with protests against acceptance of the conservative textbook (Ducke 2002). A member of the Korean Parliament implemented a five-day sit-in-cum-hunger-strike in front of Japan's Diet. Many Korean municipalities that had become sister cities of Japanese municipalities expressed displeasure and suspended exchanges of citizens (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition April, May, July 2001).

Other than these innovative tactics, the Koreans and Chinese have of course used conventional methods in the textbook dispute. Mass media (commercial media in Korea and official media in China) first expressed concern and then protested, as did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Political leaders also complained and then protested against the Japanese government. Their citizens staged demonstrations in the street as well as in front of the Japanese embassy. The next section describes interactions between the governments of Japan, Korea and China with a focus on the Japanese central government's decision-making.

The Dispute in 1982: Internationalization

The dispute that culminated in the summer of 1982 had two peculiarities. One was its internationalization. From 1982 onwards, the textbook dispute escalated from a Japanese domestic controversy to an international row involving the Korean and Chinese governments. The other peculiarity was that the Japanese government was eventually obliged to change its dictates to settle this international dispute. Below details how a move by Japanese progressives resulted in Korean and Chinese involvement.

Rose's volume has an elaborate account complete with interesting revelations of the textbook dispute of 1982. On 26 June 1982, a concerted media campaign criticizing the Ministry of Education, its textbook authorization system and the conservatives who 'pull the strings' was launched by the Asahi Shimbun. It has commonly been believed, both abroad and in Japan, that the Japanese Ministry of Education has forced all textbook publishers to water down expressions regarding Japanese imperialism in history textbooks. The 1982 phrase 'Invade Changed to Advance!' has become the slogan for the issue, and has caught the attention of Korea and China. However, as revealed by Rose, the Ministry of Education had in fact not changed the term 'invasion' to 'advance' in connection with Japan's war in China in any of the textbooks authorized in 1982, though in past years there have been some examples of this modification. Actually, the term 'invasion' still appeared in a number of authorized textbooks, while in others the words 'advance' had been used in the original manuscript. Rose made clear that this campaign was based on an erroneous report by commercial television network NTV (Nihon terebi). Parties to the dispute, including Korea and China, became aware of the error the following July. However, the Asahi Shimbun went on with its campaign (Rose 1998).

The Japanese government's response was notable for its confusion. As Rose stated, approximately a month after the Asahi Shimbun began its campaign, the Chinese state media began to criticize Japan on July 20th. On August 3rd, Korea lodged its first official protest. Until August 17th when Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki Zenkō stepped in, the Japanese Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were indulging in inter-bureaucracy conflict over how to deal with the problem amid increasing pressures from Korea and China. On August 26th, the Japanese government finally announced a measure in response to Korea and China's criticisms (Rose 1998). The Japanese government proposal comprised two points. First, the Japanese government promised to revise the official guidelines for textbook manuscripts. Future Japanese textbooks would reflect Korean and Chinese concerns. Second, current history textbooks would be revised through the next round of textbook authorization under the amended guidelines. Revised versions would be put into use in fiscal year 1985, with current versions being used until then (Asahi Shimbun 27 Aug 1982). The Japanese government managed to persuade Korea and China to accept this proposal, and the dispute was settled, at least on the diplomatic front.

The Dispute in 1986: An Interlude

The 1986 textbook dispute erupted when the Asahi Shimbun launched a media campaign on May 24th against what it called the 'reactionary' (fukko-chō) history textbook written by conservative intellectuals of the Kokumin kaigi. The conservative textbook had been processed through the Ministry of Education's textbook authorization system in January. The conservative textbook was finally approved by the Ministry of Education on May 27th. On May 30th, the Korean mass media responded to the report and criticized the Japanese for failing to face their past sins. On June 4th, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially criticized the Japanese Ministry of Education for passing and authorizing the conservative textbook. The Korean mass media began a large-scale campaign to criticize the Japanese government and people. Seeing this, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs began investigating the issue on June 7th. The Director-General of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Asian Affairs met with the Japanese Ambassador in Beijing on June 9th and handed him a memorandum protesting against the Japanese government for having authorized the rightist textbook (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition May, June 1986).

However, this time the Japanese government was quick to quash the conflict. On June 11th, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had notified it that 'the textbook in question has not yet been given final approval by the government.' Meanwhile, the Korean Minister of Education criticized the conservative textbook during a general assembly of the Korean parliament, expressing his expectation that the Japanese government would take measures to correct the situation. On June 18th, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Ministry of Education was insisting that the authors of the conservative textbook further modify the contents, even though the textbook had been officially approved by the Ministry. On the same day, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro implied in a press conference that he had instructed the Ministry of Education to take such measures so as to avoid further criticism from Korea and China. China's Renmin Ribao criticized the Kokumin kaigi and its conservative textbook on June 22nd, and warned the Japanese government to 'keep your previous promise.' However, the Korean Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs stated in a press conference on June 25th that the Japanese government was doing its best to solve the problem. The Kokumin kaigi initially refused the Japanese government's demand to further modify the contents of its textbook, but in the end gave in to government pressure. On July 7th, the Japanese Ambassadors in Seoul and Beijing explained the measures taken by the Japanese government to the Korean and Chinese Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and the Korean and Chinese governments accepted the explanations (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition June, July 1986).

The Dispute in 2001: Partial Victory of the Conservatives?

After the Kokumin kaigi's failed attempt in 1986, the Tsukuru kai undertook yet another attempt to compile conservative textbooks and to put them in the hands of Japanese students. In April 2000, it submitted the drafts of history and social sciences textbooks for junior high school students to the Ministry of Education for authorization. On 13 September 2000, the Asahi Shimbun revealed the contents of the drafts being processed by the textbook authorization system. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the draft of the conservative history textbook stated that the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 was necessary for Japan, considering the international circumstances of the day. On September 14th, the Korean government responded to this report and notified the Japanese government of its concerns. In December, China's Renmin Ribao indirectly showed that the Chinese were also concerned. During that month, it published five reports about Japan's domestic dispute over the conservative textbooks. Chinese government officials also hinted at their concerns in an unofficial meeting with visiting Japanese scholars (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition September, December 2000). On 6 January 2001, the Korean Foreign Minister notified his counterpart Kono Yohei of his concerns via telephone.

However, on February 21st, the Asahi Shimbun reported that this time Japanese leaders had decided not to intervene politically in the textbook authorization process. At this stage, according to the Asahi Shimbun, the Korean mass media had already launched a campaign to criticize the Japanese government and the conservative history textbook. The Asahi Shimbun article likewise cited an article in Renmin Ribao on February 5th on the Japanese textbook issue, and pointed out that the Chinese were also anxious. On the same day, the Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade expressed his concern in a public lecture. On February 21st, Renmin Ribao also reported the textbook dispute in Japan. The next day, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a press conference to officially request the Japanese government take measures to prevent publication of the conservative history textbook. On February 27th, Chinese President Jiang Zeming met former Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone during the Boao Asia Forum, and requested special considerations from the Japanese in order to avoid damaging bilateral relations. On February 28th, the Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade met the Japanese Ambassador in Seoul, and expressed his anxiety that the textbook issue could damage bilateral relations. On March 1st, Korean President Kim Daejung mentioned his concern in a ceremony commemorating the Korean independence movement of 1919. He said he expected the Japanese to perceive history correctly.

On the same day, during the Lower House Budget Committee meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro blamed the Japanese mass media for revealing the contents of drafts that were supposed to have been kept secret. He said the reports invited foreign intervention. Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kono stated that he was aware of Korean and Chinese concerns. He also reassured them that all textbook drafts were duly processed under guidelines which included the clause reflecting Korean and Chinese concerns. On March 5th, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Ministry of Education had instructed Tsukuru kai authors to amend 137 points in the draft of their history textbook if they wished it to pass. The condition was accepted by the Tsukuru kai. On March 6th, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs stated in a press conference that the Japanese government had to bear responsibility for the results of their textbook authorization. On March 8th, former Korean Prime Minister Kim Jongpil had a 30-minute meeting with Prime Minister Mori on the textbook issue. Kim requested that Mori contain the conflict over the textbook so as not to affect Japan-Korea bilateral relations.

There was no consensus among leading Japanese politicians in the ruling coalition as to how to solve the dispute. LDP conservative politicians expressed displeasure at the pressure from Korea and China. Meanwhile, some senior LDP politicians as well as the Kōmei-tō (Clean Government Party), which had formed a ruling coalition with the LDP, were willing to compromise. However, in the spring of 2001, Japanese Prime Minister Mori was not in a position to take the lead in solving this problem. He stated that he did not want to have conflicts with neighboring countries, even though certain conservative LDP politicians requested him not to bow to foreign and domestic pressures (Asahi Shimbun 8 March 2001). But Mori was a political 'lame-duck' during this period and fellow politicians as well as public opinion expected him to resign soon. Mori, who had been in office since April 2000, suffered from the scandals of his officials, 'inappropriate' comments he tended to make in press conferences, a stagnating economy, and a major LDP loss in the 2000 general election. Mori was replaced by Koizumi Junichiro on April 24th. During this political transition period, the Ministry of Education bureaucracy continued processing drafts of textbooks for authorization.

On April 3rd, the Ministry of Education announced that the Tsukuru kai textbooks had passed the textbook authorization system. On the same day, the spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly criticized the Japanese government for authorizing the Tsukuru kai history textbook. On April 4th, the Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade met the Japanese Ambassador in Seoul to express his regret. From early to mid-May, after examining the contents of the authorized textbooks, the Korean and Chinese governments notified the Japanese government of the points they wished to change. The Chinese government focused on eight points in the Tsukuru kai history textbook, whereas the Korean government demanded 25 points be changed in the Tsukuru kai history text, along with ten points in other textbooks.

However, on July 9th, after examining the Korean and Chinese demands, the Japanese Ministry of Education notified the Chinese government through the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it would reject the Chinese government's demand. As for the demand made by the Korean government, the Japanese Ministry of Education replied that it could change one point in the Tsukuru kai history textbook, and one point in a history textbook by another publisher. The Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade met the Japanese Ambassador in Seoul to express his disappointment. The Deputy Director-General of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Asian Affairs expressed strong regret and dissatisfaction to a Minister at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. Throughout July, the Chinese government and more particularly the Korean government continued to pressure the Japanese government. However, after learning that the majority of Japanese local education boards were not adopting the Tsukuru kai history textbook, they gradually softened their attitudes (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition January, February, March, April, July, August 2001), and had stopped pressuring the Japanese government by late August.

A Comparison of Government Decision-Making on the Three Occasions

The Japanese government reacted awkwardly to Korean and Chinese protests in 1982 and it was slow to make decisions, which aggravated the dispute during the initial stages. This could be attributed partly to then Prime Minister Suzuki's style of leadership, and partly to the fact that the Japanese government and politicians were not expecting the textbook dispute to develop into an international row. As for Suzuki, he suffered from a leadership problem. Suzuki had not aspired to become Prime Minister, but in 1980 he had unexpectedly become the president of the ruling LDP as the result of a fierce factional struggle within the party. Competing faction leaders chose a third man, Suzuki, rather than accept a rival as president (Ishikawa 1995). Suzuki was the kind of politician who preferred to 'adjust' to the opinions of other politicians (Ishikawa 1995). It was difficult to expect strong political leadership of a person like Suzuki who accidentally became Prime Minister as a result of a compromise between strong faction leaders.

Lack of leadership in the Japanese government in 1982 and the resulting confusion can be compared to the lack of leadership and the prolonged dispute in 2001. The spring of 2001 was a transition period between two Prime Ministers. Furthermore, Prime Minister Mori shared certain similarities with Suzuki. Mori unexpectedly became Prime Minister owing to the sudden death of his predecessor. He likewise 'adjusted' his opinions to those of other powerful politicians. However, Suzuki and Mori responded differently to the textbook dispute. In 1982, Suzuki finally stepped into the process of decision-making, and managed to settle the dispute in two and a half months. In contrast, Mori simply let the dispute drag on until the end of his term. Prime Minister Koizumi, who took over the office in April 2001 and was known as a politician who would assume strong leadership, was obviously not interested in solving the protracted dispute either.

In contrast with Suzuki, Mori and Koizumi, the leadership of Prime Minister Nakasone and the will to solve the dispute in the summer of 1986 stand out. This time, the dispute was settled in a month or so. Nakasone, in fact, had already experienced the Yasukuni Shrine dispute with China the previous year. Nakasone gave up visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in order to not antagonize China at a time when the threat of the Soviet Union loomed large (Shibuichi 2005). Nakasone probably avoided a dispute with Korea and China over the content of the textbooks for the same reason.

The age factor may also have affected the outcome of the textbook dispute. Japanese politicians who were involved in the dispute of 1982 and of 1986 knew very well what the Japanese Army had done abroad. Suzuki's Foreign Minister, Sakurauchi Yoshio, had served at the Chinese front during World War Two, and was consistently in favor of the Korean and Chinese position. Nakasone had been a Navy officer. Japanese public opinion during the 1980s was also mixed and complex. Even the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, which was the largest daily newspaper by circulation, maintained a neutral position in the textbook dispute of 1982 (Rose 1998).

However, in 2001, the Japanese government was led by post-war generation politicians. We can imagine that both Mori, born in 1937, and Koizumi, born in 1942, had rather more abstract images of Japanese wars in Asia than did their predecessors. The younger generation of Japanese likewise seems to hold more simplified views on history than did previous generations. This has probably contributed to the recent polarization of public opinion over the issue of history and historical identity.

Discussion and Conclusions

Based on these observations and inferences, this paper argues that different styles of leadership and different life experiences influenced the decisions made by Japanese Prime Ministers in the textbook dispute. It is also possible that the Japanese government tackled the problem seriously so as not to antagonize Korea and China in view of the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union in 1982 and 1986. However, Japanese leaders no longer had any motivation to swiftly solve the dispute in 2001. Owing to those circumstances, the Japanese conservative intellectuals' textbook movement was not able to achieve its goal in 1986. However, the movement achieved a partial success in 2001, so far as the decision of the Japanese central government was concerned.

The Tsukuru kai submitted another version of a history textbook to the Ministry of Education in 2004. What kind of new developments can we observe in the latest round of the history textbook dispute? Perhaps the fierce anti-Japan demonstrations that erupted in China in April 2005 can be regarded as a new tactic by Chinese civilian counter-movements to gain a foothold in the dispute. One of the major reasons why those demonstrations vandalized the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai was said to be that the participants wanted to protest against the Japanese government authorizing the Tsukuru kai textbook in the spring of 2005. Chinese social movements have also grown more diverse and vibrant as Chinese society has changed (Liu 2006) and as state control has eased to some extent. Meanwhile, the Korean government announced that it would participate in the dispute by supporting Korean and Japanese citizens' groups which opposed the Tsukuru kai movement (Chosun Online 6 March 2005, 11 March 2005, 8 August 2005). Those new attempts and efforts by the Korean and Chinese governments and civilian counter-movements have perhaps had some effect; the Tsukuru kai history textbook's share of the market for fiscal year 2006 will be only approximately 0.4 percent (Nihon Keizai Shimbun 6 October 2005). This result has pushed Tsukuru kai members to begin preparing for the next round of battle (Sankei Shimbun 13 October 2005).

This paper has shown how, driven by ideologies, beliefs, and grievances, people have mobilized movements under various circumstances and conditions and have tried to wield influence on their governments' decision making. However, recent developments in globalization and maturation of civil societies have made the pictures more complex. Nowadays, in East Asia, movements have begun to try to influence foreign governments' decision making. Counter-movements have begun to emerge when people perceived their ideological opponents, domestic and overseas, were gaining ground; and movements have begun to forge cross-border alliances. Decision makers in different levels of the government have found that they are sandwiched between contradictory pressures from opposing civic movements. The decision makers have also begun to face pressures from foreign governments which interact with their domestic civic movements.

Hence, complex struggles over the content of Japan’s school textbooks continue among movements and governments. Will Japanese conservatives be able to devise innovative tactics to overcome their weaknesses? Will external factors or counter-movements hinder them? We await the answers to these questions.



Asahi Jānaru

Asahi Shimbun

Asahi Shimbun Shukusatsuban (Asahi Shimbun Reduced Size Edition)

Chosun Online (Korea Daily Japanese Ediction)

Nihon Keizai Shimbun

Sankei Shimbun


Books and Articles

Buzo, A. 2002. The Making of Modern Korea, London: Routledge.

Ducke, I. 2002. Use of Internet by Political Actors in the Japanese-Korean Textbook Controversy, Media in Transition II, 10–12 May, Accessed February 1, 2008.

Habara, K. 1982.  Jimintō bunkyō-zoku no jitsuryoku [The Power of the LDP Education Tribe], Sekai, November: pp. 65-71.

Igarashi, F. 1981. Kyōkasho mondai kenkyū-kai no igaina jitsuryoku [The Surprising Influence of the Study Group for Researching the Textbook Problem], Asahi Jānaru, April 24: pp. 10-4.

Ishii, K. 1981. Kyōkasho ni muragaru torikkī gaizu [Tricky Guys Swarming the Textbook Issue], Seiron, April: pp. 126-142.

Ishikawa, M. 1995. Sengo seijishi [Political History of the Post-War Period], Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Atarashii rekishi kyōkasho wo tsukuru kai [The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform] Homepage, Accessed April 16, 2004.

Kobori, K. 1982. Kyōkasho-mondai watashi no teigen [My Proposals on the Textbook Issue], Shokun! October: pp. 46-62.

Liu, S.D. 2006. China's popular nationalism on the internet. Report on the 2005 anti-Japan network struggles, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 7 (1): pp. 144-155.

Koh., B.C. 1984. The Foreign Policy Systems of North and South Korea, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nishio, K. 2001. Jiyū to minshushugi no nanioite kyōkasho saitakuno 'saishingi' wo yōkyū suru [We Demand Re-selection of School Textbooks in the Name of Freedom and Democracy], Seiron, October: pp. 242-3.

Oguma, E. and Ueno, Y. 2003. Iyashi no nashonarizumu [Nationalism that Heals] Tokyo: Keio gijuku daigaku shuppankai.

Ohata, W. 1981. Kyōiku jōka wo tonaeru 'nihon kyōgaku rengōkai' hataage no nerai [The Hidden Agenda for Setting Up the 'Japan Teaching Federation' that Insists School Education be Purified], Asahi Jānaru, April 24: pp. 15-7.

Rose, C. 1998. Interpreting History in Sino-Japanese Relations: a Case Study in Political Decision-Making, London: Routledge.

Shibuichi, D. 2005. The Yasukuni Shrine Dispute and the Politics of Identity in Japan: Why All the Fuss? Asian Survey, 45 (2): pp. 197-215.

Uesugi, A. 2003a. Nihon ni okeru 'shūkyō uyoku' no taitō to 'tsukuru kai' 'nippon kaigi' [The Rise of the 'Religious Right-Wing' in Japan and the 'Japan Society for History Textbook Reform' and the 'Japan Conference'], Accessed February 14, 2008.

Uesugi, A. 2003b. Tsukuru kai no ima [Tsukuru Kai Now], Accessed February 14, 2008.

Wani, Y. 2001. Rekishi kyōkasho to nashonalizumu [History Textbooks and Nationalism] Tokyo: Shakai hyōron sha.

Yoshizawa, T. Kyōkasho saitaku ga shimeshita min-i [The Will of the People Revealed in the Selection of Textbooks], Sekai, October 2001.

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Further Reading

Alagappa, M. ed. 2004. Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Hein, L.E. and Selden, M. 2000. Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Nelson, J.K. 2002. Tempest in a Textbook: A Report on the New Middle-School History Textbook in Japan, Critical Asian Studies, 34 (1): pp.129-148.

Nozaki, Y. 2002. Japanese Politics and the History Textbook Controversy, 1982–2001, International Journal of Educational Research, 37 (6–7): pp. 603-22.

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About the author

Daiki Shibuichi has a PhD in political science from the National University of Singapore. The author expresses his gratitude to Lee Lai To, Leszek Buszynski, Iris Mielonen and Wang Jingru for encouragements and general comments.

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Copyright: Daiki Shibuichi
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