World War II: February 1998 From the Editor | HistoryNet MENU

World War II: February 1998 From the Editor

8/19/1998 • World War II Archives


The Japanese people continue to wrestle with the truth when it comes to their World War II atrocities.

In a very real sense, Japan continues to fight World War II. Although the guns of armed conflict have long been silent and the sorrow over battlefield casualties has diminished, a battle rages on within Japan itself, and the only casualty may be the truth.

That is, unless 83-year-old historian Saburo Ienaga perseveres. Ienaga has, for more than 30 years, fought his country’s bureaucracy, trying to compel the nation to tell its schoolchildren the truth about Japanese atrocities committed during WWII. In a recent landmark decision, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that the country’s education ministry violated the law of the land in requiring that mention of a Japanese atrocity be stricken from a textbook authored by Ienaga.

In a narrow 3­2 vote, the Supreme Court justices ruled that the education ministry had taken an illegal action both in 1980 and 1983 by removing Ienaga’s descriptions of biological experiments conducted on as many as 3,000 victims in occupied northern China during the war. The reference has been reinserted into Ienaga’s text and recounts the horrific treatment of people who were injected with disease-causing bacteria and allowed to suffer so that the effects of the diseases could be studied. Others underwent surgery or dissection without anesthesia and were simply abandoned to die.

Controversy continues in Japan over just how much information about Japanese actions during WWII should be reported in school textbooks. Incidents such as the rape of Nanking, in which as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians were massacred by the Imperial Japanese Army, and the treatment of Allied prisoners by their captors remain touchy subjects in and out of the classroom.

Even as the court read its decision, right-wing demonstrators howled their disapproval and waved the Rising Sun flag outside. At times, Ienaga has needed a police escort to protect him from angry mobs who believe he has disgraced his country. Scores of people, however, stood and applauded Ienaga when the court read its decision.

While the Japanese Supreme Court seems to have come far, it is apparent that a bitter issue continues to be contested. The court ruled that “the education minister illegally stepped beyond the bounds of appropriate screening.” Further, the court said that the minister had used “erroneous judgment” and called upon the education ministry to avoid censoring textbooks as much as possible so that the political views of one government do not dominate those that succeed it. The court also ordered the ministry to pay Ienaga $3,360 in damages.

At the same time, however, the court refused to rule in Ienaga’s favor regarding seven other passages in his textbook, one of which discussed Japanese soldiers raping Chinese women. It also unanimously upheld the right of the education ministry to continue to censor textbooks. This includes the right to eliminate any material that may be deemed objectionable. “We will take the ruling seriously and continue to make sure contents of textbooks are appropriate,” commented Education Minister Takashi Kosugi.

“Today’s ruling was not a complete victory,” Ienaga told a press conference. “But one more case of screening has been judged illegal. In other words, the Supreme Court has admitted that textbook screening is illegal.”

Some Japanese history books do contain references to slave laborers brought to Japan from Korea and to the Korean women who were coerced into prostitution for the convenience of Japanese soldiers and came to be known as “comfort women.” Still, those who work to end textbook censorship do so mainly because they do not wish to see the horrors of the past repeated. A cry for historic justice has also been raised by many of the nations that suffered under the heel of Japanese occupation during the war.

Has Saburo Ienaga’s relentless effort to tell generations of young Japanese the truth about their country’s past been effective? Many believe that it has, but they also understand that there remains much to be done. Books and television documentaries continue to appear, presenting startling evidence that is virtually undeniable, and the Japanese government will ultimately be compelled to come face to face with Japan’s aggressive warrior past–a past that includes rape and murder in the name of empire.

Of course, the entire situation begs obvious questions. Does the education ministry deny that the armed forces of Japan committed crimes against humanity? As their nation’s future leaders, will the young people sitting in classrooms across the land not be confronted with this issue in the world community? Ignoring the facts perpetuates an untruth. It is time for the Japanese government to be truthful. Thanks to Saburo Ienaga and others like him, the hour is closer at hand.


Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II


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