By Nam Sang-gu
The media have usually highlighted conflicts between Korea and Japan over the latter’s approval of biased school textbooks every March over the past decade just as if they were an annual occurrence. This year is no exception.
The textbook issue drew international attention for the first time in 1982. Korea and China strongly protested that year as it was reported that Japan has sought to describe its invasion of China as an “advance” to the Asian nation in the process of screening textbooks.
In response to the backlash from Korea and China, Japan adopted “a clause to consider neighboring countries’ positions” when it describes its modern history.
As a result, Japan had made lots of improvements in its history descriptions since many textbooks included details about such historical facts as “comfort women,” war of aggression and colonial rule. (“Comfort women” are a euphemism for young, innocent girls forcibly mobilized as sexual slaves for frontline Japanese soldiers during World War II.)
But the conflicts have resurfaced since 2001, when the right-wing Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform published a middle school history textbook glorifying Japan’s war of aggression. Since then, more and more textbooks have claimed that Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo are part of Japanese territory. (The islets are called Takeshima in Japanese.)
Things went from bad to worse in July 2008, when a guidebook manifestly called on middle school teachers to teach students that the Dokdo Islets belong to Japan. This has made Koreans express growing concerns about Japan’s irrational claims over Dokdo and its attempts to distort history.
The reason why Japanese history textbooks matter is that textbooks have great influence on youngsters’ understanding about neighboring countries and the world. In 1974, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a recommendation on education for international understanding, cooperation and peace, and education relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The UNESCO’s recommendation stressed that education should promote international understanding and contribute to world peace. It also emphasized that education should help make critical analyses on historical and practical factors with economic and political implications that could cause contractions and tensions among nations.
Japan’s unjustified and unreasonable claims to Dokdo and its biased descriptions about history unquestionably run counter to the spirit of UNESCO, because they only deepen conflict and hamper a critical perspective. They also go against the reality that calls for closer cooperation among nations in Northeast Asia. In addition, they work as an obstacle to coexistence and prosperity in the region.
Japan may find a solution to the conflicts with neighboring countries over its distorted textbooks, when it recognizes that the disputes are not only its domestic issue but also an important matter related to peace and prosperity in East Asia.
The clause of “considering neighboring countries,” which Japan adopted 30 years ago, reflected such a perception. Now, it’s time for Japan to pluck up courage to learn from its past wisdom before it looks for new alternatives.
Dr. Nam Sang-gu is a researcher at the Seoul-based Northeast Asian History Foundation. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.