History Teaching Around the World: Japan and Asia

Mike Bourne writes: I've been having a running conversation with some friends and colleagues about the ethnocentric treatment of historic events in Asian countries in American culture, particularly in textbooks.  As a disclaimer, I'm in no way affiliated with Lafayette College or profiting from sales of the book referred to in this message.

PORTSMOUTH - The city will once again be the center of international excitement this summer for the 100th anniversary of the signing of 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth. The treaty ended the Russo-Japanese War, bringing delegates and dignitaries from those countries together at a peace conference in Portsmouth. President Theodore Roosevelt, the delegates, the U.S. Navy, the state of New Hampshire, and the city of Portsmouth contributed to the multilateral peace process.


Here's what the Portsmouth Treaty really did......

Portsmouth, Treaty of Portsmouth, Treaty of, 1905, treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War. It was signed at the Portsmouth Naval Base, New Hampshire, on Sept. 5, 1905. Negotiations leading up to the treaty began in the spring of 1905 when Russia had suffered severe defeats, and Japan was in financial difficulties. Therefore, both nations indicated a desire for peace. Germany, the United States, and Great Britain were instrumental in forcing conciliation between the belligerents. However, the United States and Britain exacted certain concessions from Japan before smoothing the way for the treaty. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded that Japan follow the Open Door policy in Manchuria and return the region to Chinese administration. In the Taft-Katsura agreement of July, 1905, Roosevelt agreed to Japanese dominance in Korea in return for American freedom of action in the Philippines. Great Britain had the Anglo-Japanese treaty extended to cover all of E Asia and in return also gave Japan a free hand in Korea. Under the terms of the Portsmouth agreement, Russia was compelled to recognize Korea's independence and the “paramount political, military, and economic interests” of Japan in Korea. Russia also agreed to place Manchuria again under the sovereignty of China, and all foreign troops were to be removed. The railway lines in S Manchuria, constructed by Russia, were ceded to Japan without payment. The disputed Liaodong peninsula (see Liaoning), containing the ports of Dalian and Port Arthur (see Lüshun), was turned over to Japan, as was the southern part of the island of Sakhalin. Japan also obtained fishing rights in the waters adjacent to the Russian Far East. The Treaty of Portsmouth marked the temporary decline of Russian power in East Asia and the emergence of Japan as the strongest power in the area.

Japanese War Atrocities:

Unit 731 was a secret military medical unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that researched biological warfare and other topics through human experimentation during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II era. The unit was disguised as a water purification unit. It was based in Pingfan, near the city of Harbin in northeastern China, the region which was then part of the puppet state of Manchukuo. Some researchers (http://www.skycitygallery.com/japan/japan.html) and various credible Western and Eastern sources (http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstats.htm) believe that over 10,000 Chinese and Korean civilians and as well as Allied POWs were killed by the experiments of Unit 731, but this number is debatable.

There were other units besides Unit 731, which serves as a general term in describing the Japanese biological warfare program. Other units include Unit 543 (Hailar), Unit 773 (Songo unit), Unit 100 (Changchun), Unit 1644 (Nanjing), Unit 1855 (Beijing), Unit 8604 (Guangzhou), and Unit 9420 Singapore. The acts of Unit 731 are only one of many major war crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese Army from the occupation of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of World War II in 1945, during which over 15 million Chinese, Korean, Filippino, Indonesian, Burmese, Indochinese civilians, Pacific Islanders and Allied POWs were killed.

After these laboratories were destroyed by the Japanese to hide their crimes, many of the scientists involved went on to enjoy prominent careers in politics, academia and business. The US allowed these scientists to go free in exchange for their experimentation data.

American Accounts...............
American textbook accounts of World War II have shown one important parallel with German textbooks: they have become more multicultural and critical of past racism. The emergence of racial segregation in the U.S. military, contributions of women on the home front, and the internment of Japanese-Americans into concentration camps as topics for discussion in some school curricula shows a family resemblance to the German notion that a full accounting of Nazi atrocities is necessary for building a multi-ethnic German future. But as the Enola Gay controversy of 1995 shows, Americans have been less flexible in their views of foreigners: multiculturalism does not necessarily lead to internationalism. U.S. public discourse about the Vietnam War is closer to Japanese official memory of the Pacific War. American textbooks lack serious engagement with the causes of the war, U.S. atrocities against civilians, the causes of domestic division over the war, and attention to Vietnamese social and cultural history. Like Japanese, Americans have access to a number of scholarly and journalistic resources which could be used to correct these deficiencies, but alas the problem is not a lack of information or available research. Also like the Japanese, Americans tend to focus on the suffering of their own fellow nationals, portraying themselves as victims instead of invaders. Finally, it is interesting to note that if Vietnamese citizens today want apologies and compensation from the Americans, they will have to succeed without the help of their government. As Bill Clinton's recent trip to Vietnam made clear, American investment, aid, and sponsorship in international organizations are far more important to these erstwhile anti-imperialists than official acknowledgment of war atrocities or past aggression.

Laura Hein and Mark Selden, eds. Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States. Asia and the Pacific Series. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. 287 pp. Index. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7656-0447-7. Reviewed by: Paul Barclay , Department of History, Lafayette College.
Published by: H-World (May, 2001)

RH: I sent a long letter to the National Endowment for the Humanities, hopng to arouse interest in our learning history project. I received no reply. I attributed this discourtesy to fear of upsetting our JApanese allies.

From Paris, David Pike sent this message to Tomoyuki Hashimoto: of Japan:  I understand that you belong to the Frage Institute of the University of San Francisco and that you are interested in the study of how certain historiography falsifies history, through ignorance or design. The resurgence of Japanese nationalism is very much in the news. Witness the success of Shinzo Abe, now secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, in censoring from the 2001 documentary on the Korean wartime sex slaves, produced by the public broadcaster NHK, all references to Japanese guilt. I have written this story of the sex slaves in some detail in my 2001 work The Closing of the Second World War, and now that the 60th anniversary of the end of the war is coming up, I plan to write several pieces for the press, especially the International Herald Tribune.

Neither I nor WAIS, the Stanford think-tank with which I have been long connected, has any position on any question other than to seek and then disseminate the truth. I believe it was precisely my telling you this that
excited your interest in what we do. As I remember it, I promised to send you the elements in my 2001 edition pertaining to Japanese crimes which, unlike German crimes, have not found at home a public desirous of knowing the truth about the nation's past. If you think, as we do, that what counts about our past is to acknowledge the bad as well as to rejoice in the good, I would be happy to pass these materials on to you as soon as I can find the time, in the hope that you will then reveal them to a wider audience.

RH: Could someone give us information on the Frage Institute of the University of San Francisco?

From Denmark Holger Terp tells us about history teaching in Japan: There is a Japanese magazine Muse, published by the Japanese Network of Museums for Peace for the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, Ritsumeikan University.  See http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp  This learned magazine clearly shows, that there is an opposition to nationalism and its rewriting of history books. I have been indexing the magazine in the Danish Peace Academy for some years now, as it is a good source on the history of Japan as well as on Japan and nuclear weapons during and after the second world war.  RH: I gave some lectures at this university, but I did not see this museum; possibly it was established after I was there,  My sponsor was the head of then history department, He certainly did not have Muse mentality. Eric Boehm asked me to find someone who could write abstracts of Japanese articles for Historical Abstracts, one of Eric's many creations. I approached my sponsor, who was very suspicious and was of no help.  He clearly did not want foreigners prying into Japanese history.  He was extremely conservative.  There is in Japan a group known as the bunraki. They look and act like ordinary Japanese, but they are outcasts.  They work in leather, which is considered defiling, presumably because of the Buddhist tradition. I met some when I had my shoes repaired. There was a student protest against the discrimination from which they suffered.  My sponsor was furious at this attack on the old order. I asked him how one could tell a bunraki, since they look like ordinary Japanese.  He replied that they tracked people down, even going to their native village to see if the family was bunraki. His wife was treated like a servant, not sitting with us when we went to dinner at his house.  The question is whether his type is disappearing and whether the new generation is more willing to face the facts of Japanese history.

Kyle Ward replies to Mike Bourne: Having spent a great deal of time looking at American and international
history textbooks I have discovered that of all the textbooks from around the world the one that is the most similar to the US textbooks (format, story lines, etc.) are those of Germany.  My knee-jerk reaction to this is due to the US occupation following WWII but this does not seem to hold true in Japan.

In regards to the comments about the US and how the Vietnam War is studied it is interesting to note that recently I came across an American history textbook (drawing a blank on the title) in which the Vietnam War was referred to as America's "most least successful war."  I am not sure what should be made of a comment like that?

I also wanted to let Ronald  Hilton know that the NEH also shot down our idea of a documentary on how history is taught around the world.  We were told that nobody cares about historiography or issues such as this.

RH: This refers to the fact that the National Endowment for the Humanities did not even reply to the long letter I sent on the subject.  The NEH statement "Nobody cares..." is outrageous.  The HEH, like the NSF, etc freeze at the mention of a controversial subject which might lead to a reduction in their funding. The Library of Congress discarded its collection of Nazi textbooks.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 16, 2005