The spin in history textbooks

With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II taking place this weekend, the Financial Times visited national memorials in China, Japan and Korea, and asked prominent academics to review translations of history textbook and share their assessments. The textbooks were not as factually distorted as many had expected. "There are plenty of things that are emotionally larded and in some cases presented with a certain level of spin," says University of Oxford sinologist Rana Mitter. "But overall they were less outside the bounds of what historians would consider reasonable than I had expected."

Japanese soldiers taking civilian women away during the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre in 1937. "Comfort women" from countries such as South Korea, China and the Philippines were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the Second World War.
Japanese soldiers taking civilian women away during the Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre in 1937. "Comfort women" from countries such as South Korea, China and the Philippines were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the Second World War. PHOTO: XINHUA


DEC 1937-JAN 1938

The Imperial Japanese Army's attack on Nanking, today known as Nanjing, is widely regarded as the worst atrocity of the Second World War's Asian theatre. After capturing Shanghai, the Japanese military advanced up the Yangtze river to Nanking, the seat of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. In the slaughter of civilians and soldiers that followed, Chinese sources claim that more than 300,000 people died. Japanese soldiers also perpetrated widespread rape.

Japan: According to a brief reference to Nanking at the Yasukuni museum in Tokyo, the Japanese general in charge gave his men maps showing foreign settlements and a civilian "safety zone", and ordered them to maintain strict military discipline. The visitor is left to assume they did. The museum notes only that "Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted".

This nationalist view does not, however, represent a widely shared understanding of what happened at Nanking, as illustrated by Japanese textbooks' rather different treatment of the atrocity. While the books' take on Nanking is stilted and feels like the product of a committee, in various versions they acknowledge the deaths of thousands of Chinese including women and children, as well as looting, arson and assaults by Japanese soldiers. They do not spell out the sexual nature of these assaults.

"During this period, when the Japanese Army occupied Nanjing it killed a large number of Chinese and carried out looting, arson and assaults. In regard to the number of victims of this Nanjing Massacre... the Tokyo (War Crime) Trials later found it in excess of 200,000, and prosecuted Japan's responsibility severely," reads one Japanese textbook.

In a footnote, the same book notes that other estimates of the death toll range from 40,000 to 100,000 while "the Chinese side puts the figure at 300,000".

A picture caption in the same book also insists that while the Japanese military "massacred many Chinese" at Nanking, "the Japanese people were not informed of these facts".

South Korea: The Rape of Nanking is not mentioned in great detail, but it is referred to in the context of the "massive damage and pain" inflicted by Japanese troops across the region. The textbooks note that people in Nanking were "massacred indiscriminately" and put the death toll at "hundreds of thousands".

China: Accounts of the Rape of Nanking include graphic descriptions of the atrocity. "The Japanese invaders also had families, wives, sons and daughters and enjoyed spending time with their families," says one textbook. "But, having invaded China, they massacred unarmed Chinese civilians in an extremely cruel and inhuman manner." It then goes on to describe horrific deaths involving awls, bayonets and sulphuric acid.

"Burning, killing, raping and pillaging followed wherever the Japanese went," it continues. "After the Japanese army captured Nanjing, they committed an atrocity of unparallelled savagery... they killed over 300,000 unarmed Nanjing civilians and soldiers who had laid down their arms. Some of them were shot, bayoneted, buried or burned alive."

While Chinese sources take umbrage with any account that does not accept that more than 300,000 people were killed at Nanking, there is a genuine historical debate over the exact death toll.

"Even among scholars who absolutely acknowledge that there was a horrific massacre in Nanjing, the exact number (of victims) is not generally pinned down with that level of certitude," says Oxford University's Professor Rana Mitter.



"Comfort women" from countries including Korea, China and the Philippines were forced to work in Japanese military brothels. The fight for victim compensation has erupted periodically over recent decades, principally affecting relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

China: In contrast to its treatment of the Rape of Nanking, Beijing's official narrative of the Second World War pays little attention to the plight of the comfort women, perhaps partly due to the social stigma attached to such servitude.

South Korea: The issue of comfort women continues to resonate in South Korea, however. On every Wednesday since 1992, people will gather by a statue of a young girl outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and call on Tokyo to atone fully for forcing thousands of Korean women into sexual slavery during the second world war.

South Korean anger on the subject shows no sign of abating. "The Japanese government should at least acknowledge the truth," Lee Yu-jin, a 17-year-old girl, told hundreds of protesters in a tearful speech a recent gathering.

"Women mobilised by the Japanese military were sacrificed to immense pain and insult," one Korean textbook reads. "Even after the war, they lived miserable lives with physical and psychological scars."

Japan: Most textbooks make some reference to the use of forced labour and conscription from its colonies. One acknowledges that the use of such labour "left deep scars on Japan's relationship with Asia to the present day".

But it mentions comfort women specifically only in a footnote and gives no sense of what they suffered: "In the 1990s, these issues were brought into the courts. The so-called comfort women problem is one example."

In 1993, Mr Yohei Kono, Japan's chief Cabinet secretary, issued a statement apologising for the recruitment of the women "in many cases... against their own will" and "with the involvement of the military authorities of the day".

The Kono Statement failed to satisfy many people in South Korea who argued that it stopped short of a full claim of responsibility, and complained that compensation offered to the victims was inadequate because it was funded by private donations rather than the state.

"There are a number of bits of specific information that (Japanese textbooks) put into footnotes," says Mr Owen Miller of the University of London. "They're clearly trying to put things aside. The strategy seems to be not to completely ignore (Japanese wrongdoing) but to minimise the level of importance given to it in the text." THE FINANCIAL TIMES

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline The spin in history textbooks. Subscribe