Publication Date

November 1, 1997

For a long time, school textbooks in Japan were produced by the government. This changed in 1948, when a system of "screening" by the Ministry of Education was introduced, This system allowed many private publishers to produce textbooks; but the state did not entirely loosen its grip, The authors of textbooks were required to conform to government-issued school course 'guidelines, and textbooks could be published only with the authorization of the Ministry of Education.

In contrast to the generally conservative—and at times even reactionary—political atmosphere in Japan, most textbook authors have been liberal and progressive. Conservative, politicians and other groups thus tended to stage repeated attacks on textbooks, The authors resisted these pressures and made every effort to write as they thought appropriate. The Ienaga textbook review case symbolizes this long and continuing struggle between authors and the state.

The saga began in 1965, when Professor Saburo Ienaga challenged the constitutionality and legality of the government's textbook screening' system after he was required to rewrite his textbook according to an order of the Ministry of Education, In 1970, the Tokyo district court decided that the screening was in effect censorship, and thus violated not only the Basic Law of Education, but also Article 21 of the Japanese constitution, The Tokyo High Court also concurred with this judgment. The Supreme Court, however, overturned the decisions of the lower courts in 1982,

In that same year, Japanese history textbooks were criticized by Korean, Chinese, and other Asian countries' governments and mass media on the grounds that in the texts the discussion of Japan's aggressive activities in Asia up to 1945 had been seriously diluted, It was at this time that Professor Ienaga filed a third suit, this time challenging the legality of the orders and recommendations of the Ministry of Education that required him to revise his descriptions of the Japanese Imperial Army's brutal behavior. In 1989 the Tokyo district court, while upholding the constitutionality of the screening system, nevertheless found that the Ministry's orders were unlawful in the case of three passages dealing with the Nangking massacre of 1937 and 19th-century popular movements in Japan, since the facts regarding these subjects had been widely acknowledged by the historical community.

The August decision of the Supreme Court—which also upheld the legality of the screening process—declared that the ministry's intervention was unlawful on a fourth passage as well. This concerned "Unit 731," a part of the Imperial Army that was stationed in Harbin and which conducted germ warfare experiments on Chinese prisoners. This story had remained hidden until the end of the 1970s and became public partly because the United States had granted immunity to the leaders of the unit in 1947 in exchange for the group's data.

It may not he: wise, in any case, to leave the determination of historical truth to judges and courts of law, but the most important effect of the Ienaga case has been the fact that for more than 30 years, historians and authors of textbooks have been kept conscious about the problem of who controls education, the people or the state. Although the court decision brought legal closure to the venerable, octogenarian professor's long quest, this essential problem still remains unsolved. Not surprisingly, a similar suit has recently been initiated by another professor, Nobuyoshi Takashima.

Further, while educated opinion in japan—including a group of more than 20,000 historians and history teachers—supported Ienaga during his court struggles, there are also groups in Japan which take a grassroots conservative position and castigate many history textbooks as being "masochistic." Despite the conflicts and battles between these camps, Japanese history textbooks, especially those discussing world history, are relatively good.

In a step to ensure that the lessons of the Ienaga case be available for historians, the documents pertaining to the Ienaga case have already been published in eight volumes, and six more volumes are expected. In addition, Professor Ienaga's papers concerning the trials have been deposited at the library of the Tokyo Metropolitan University.

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