January 21, 2015

Anxious governments: Japan seeks to remove “comfort women” from textbooks and history


An anxious flag

An anxious flag

Last week we covered the removal of nature words from Oxford Junior Dictionary and Oxford University Press’s new policy regarding culturally sensitive subjects; discussing the week’s news yesterday, Alex Shephard and Mark Krotov labelled the week as notably full of “anxious publishers”. But what about anxious governments? Yesterday, Japan stepped up and assumed this mantle.

In 2014 Japan’s conservative administration which is headed by Shinzo Abe, a nationalist, “tightened curriculum guidelines that require publishers to state the government’s official view on contentious issues”, reports The Guardian. More specifically, Abe has sought to play down the role of “comfort women” in WWII, the euphemistic name given to women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and after the war. The Guardian again:

Under Abe, a nationalist, Japan has attempted to play down controversial episodes in its modern history, including the Rape of Nanking, the treatment of Allied prisoners of war, and the coercion of as many as 20,000 women, most of whom were from the Korean peninsula, to work at military brothels.…

Experts who helped write a 2007 US House of Representatives resolution calling on Japan to acknowledge and apologise for the role imperial forces played in coercing the women say Abe is quietly undermining the official apology as Japan prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific war with a new “forward-looking” statement from Abe.

So far, it has been Japanese publishers of school textbooks that have had to make revisions. Editors of textbooks have been required to “tweak passages to render them more ambiguous” and “new material will mention that South Koreans are seeking compensation through the Japanese courts, but won’t explain why.”

Suken Shuppan, a Tokyo-based publisher has already removed references of “comfort women” from social studies and politics textbooks that will appear in schools as soon as the next academic year. According to The Bookseller, “there has been some resistance to what some claim are revisionist texts, but by large Japan’s education boards are rolling over one by one to accept them.”

Yesterday the Japanese government’s anxiety went global. The American publisher McGraw-Hill Education revealed that diplomats from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) had asked the publisher to change references to comfort women in one of its history textbooks, which is to be used in American schools. This is the first time the government has sought to influence foreign publishers.

The book in question is Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past by Jerry H Bentley and Herbert Ziegler. The Bookseller reports that diplomats made their request after reviewing the title and, according to them “upon finding grave errors and descriptions that conflict with our nation’s stance on the issue of ‘comfort women’ and the issue of the name of the Sea of Japan.”

McGraw-Hill Education is standing firm. In a statement it said:

Scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women’ and we unequivocally stand behind the writing, research and presentation of our authors.

McGraw-Hill Education has the freedom to refuse such demands, and can continue to publish texts which remain true to historical events and atrocities. But critics of the regime in Japan rightly worry about what the effects of censorship inside Japan, where it apparently cannot be stemmed. Mina Watanabe from the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace in Tokyo told The Guardian that censorship would be devastating for younger generations:

Children in neighbouring countries know the truth about the Japanese military’s conduct in Asia … only Japanese children would be kept in the dark, but they have the right to learn the facts of history.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.