In S. Korea, historical distortions that Abe could only dream of

Posted on : 2015-10-14 16:51 KST Modified on : 2015-10-14 16:51 KST
With state designated history textbook, Seoul taking a more aggressive approach to controlling history than Japan has
 holding a placard that reads
holding a placard that reads

Toshio Suzuki sighed deeply when asked for his thoughts on the South Korean government’s recent decision to designate official Korean history textbooks. The 66-year-old retired high school teacher has long been part of the campaign in Japan to oppose government involvement in textbooks. He then said, “Why wouldn’t more and more people in Japan start thinking, ‘So South Korea is one of those countries that teaches students history however it sees fit’?”

According to Suzuki, Japanese news outlets have consistently responded to debates over historical issues with South Korea -- such as sovereignty over Dokdo and the drafting of “comfort women” -- by broadcasting footage from the schools where the matters are the focus of intensive teaching. The message has been that anti-Japanese education is to blame for anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans, he explained.

“In the past, I always used to argue, ‘South Koreans opted for a state textbook designation system in the past, but now it’s an authorization system just like Japan’s,” Suzuki said. “Now I can’t say that.”

“Now that South Korea has gone back to an anachronistic designation system, it‘s become more likely to be used as a propaganda tool for Japanese right-wingers, who are going to say things like, ‘Well, that’s just the kind of country it is,’” he fretted.

Representatives of civil society in South Korea and Japan are increasingly arguing that the Park administration made the worst possible decision in opting for state textbook designation -- something even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been criticized as the chief architect of the country‘s distortions of East Asian history, would never attempt.

The conservative administrations in South Korea and Japan differ little in their basic attitude toward their history textbooks. The “education renewal headquarters” of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party released a June 2013 report from its special textbook authorization method committee arguing that “many textbooks still contain problematic accounts that are founded in a self-flagellating view of history.” Similarly, an Oct. 12 press release by the South Korean Ministry of Education announcing the new designation system said that “endless factual errors and accusations of bias have been noted in the case of history textbooks.” The two countries share the basic view that their history textbooks are “self-flagellating” and “biased,” requiring the state to step in and “fix” them.

But they differ considerably in how the state has gotten involved. While Seoul overtly decided to return to a designation system, Tokyo‘s intervention has been subtler and less direct.

The first decision to designate textbooks in Japan came in 1903, on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Subsequently primary school textbooks presented heroic tales of war such as that of the “three suicide warriors” who lost their lives for the state -- stories that helped turn students into militarist youths willing to die for their emperor. It was reflection over this that helped shape a general consensus after the designation system ended in 1948 that it was wrong for the state to use textbooks as a way of controlling the public’s thinking.

“There were calls for designation from within the LDP once free textbook distribution began in 1962, but it never came to pass,” said Yoshifumi Tawara, secretary-general of the group Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21. “We saw the same calls from the education renewal headquarters, but [the plan] wasn’t adopted.”

“The Japanese public wouldn’t accept it,” Tawara explained.

For that reason, the Abe administration‘s efforts since coming to power for a second time in Dec. 2012 have been less direct, including changes to instructional guideline manuals and other textbook writing guidelines and working to increase the adoption rate for right-wing textbooks. The result has been a major step back in historical accounts as a whole, with next year’s middle school textbooks including statements about how Dokdo is “Japanese territory under illegal occupation by South Korea.” Meanwhile, the adoption rate for a right-wing history textbook by the publisher Ikuhosha is up to 6.2% this year from 4% four years ago.

There are now concerns that the Park Geun-hye administration’s state Korean history textbook designation decision could deal a heavy blow to the country’s hard-won standing on the global stage.

“Even the UN issued history education guidelines at its 68th General Assembly in 2013 stating that different textbooks should be used in history education,” said Do Jong-hwan, chairperson of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy special committee opposing the designation plan.

“The Park administration has insisted on turning the clock back on history. It’s an embarrassment to the international community,” Do said.

Bang Ji-won, a Silla University professor who has researched textbook systems around the world, noted in one study that 17 of the OECD’s 34 member countries have free publication systems, while four have approval systems and 13 have authorization systems.

“The only countries in the world that issue textbooks under a state designation system are North Korea, Bangladesh, and a few Islamic states,” Bang said.

Beyond its impact in terms of political differences in South Korea, the designation system could also take a serious long-term toll on relations with Japan.

“South Korean civil society has often criticized government involvement in Japanese textbooks, but with this [decision] they’re in danger of losing a lot of the basis for their argument,” said Lee Sin-cheol, a professor at the Sungkyunkwan University Center for East Asian History.

“If nationalistic accounts of history become more prominent, then history instruction is only going to get worse in both countries, which will be an obstacle to peace in East Asia,” Lee warned.

Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University, said Seoul had “gone a step farther than the Abe administration in forcing the state’s historical views on people.”

Kan also said Abe “may envy South Korea” for being able to simply decide on a textbook designation system.

By Gil Yun-hyung, Tokyo correspondent and Jeon Jung-yoon, staff reporter

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