Saburo Ienaga and the fight against Textbook Censorship

For this week’s blog update I am going to talk about the Japanese historian and educator Saburo Ienaga (1913-2002) and his lawsuits against the Japanese Ministry of Education (MOE) from 1965 to their climax in 1997. His struggle against textbook censorship was one of the most important social and political struggles in Post-war Japan and helped to introduce many post-war students and more widely, the Japanese public to the events and horrors committed by the Japanese military during the war. Therefore, in this post I will look at each of the three lawsuits and explain what each of them meant and examine whether they were successful in their aims and then finish with a conclusion.

To understand the textbook trials, I will firstly reveal a bit about Ienaga’s upbringing and his life before and during World War II. Ienaga was born in 1913 into a family of near poverty with his father serving as an officer in the army whilst Ienaga was growing up. Ienaga’s experience of school education left him firmly believing in democracy and world peace rather than Japan’s ‘uniqueness’. Ienaga did not speak out against the Japanese Government during the war as he felt that it would make the deaths of the Japanese soldiers meaningless. As for political stance, Ienaga was a Progressive or leaned more to the left side of politics and he also stood against state intervention in individual’s cultural and spiritual work. He summed up his position in a letter in March 1966; “I believe in the pride of Japan. But unlike some of the people in the Ministry of Education, I absolutely cannot endorse Emperor Jimmu, the Korean annexation and the Greater East Asia War as the “positive side” of Japanese history.” [1] Whilst Ienaga was part of the wider progressive movement it was through him that the Ministry of Education was challenged.

Ienaga’s history textbook the Shin Nihonshi (revised edition, first submitted in 1952) was rejected and revised over three times between 1955 and 1964. Because of this Ienaga was convinced that the textbook screening was a form of censorship so he took the case to court against the Ministry of Education in 1965. The screening process, after the American Occupation ended in 1952 was controlled by the Conservative backed Ministry of Education. The textbooks were produced by publishing companies and the content was not prescribed but screened for factual accuracy by the Ministry of Education. The system was in many ways supporting the Conservatives and nationalists as ‘by screening out what cannot be said (“factually inaccurate statements”) rather than stating what should be said, the screening process effectively allows conservatives and nationalists to limit the contents of textbooks by continually challenging the “factual accuracy” of the numbers killed in the Nanking massacre or by simply dropping “masochistic” topics.’ [2]

The First lawsuit began in 1964, with the primary objective being to demonstrate that state screening of textbooks was unconstitutional (e.g. a violation of the freedom of expression and scholarship) and that it was contrary to the Fundamental Education Law of 1947 (i.e. a violation of the principle protecting education from improper control). In the then current edition, Ienaga had highlighted the ‘reckless war’ in the depiction of the Asia-Pacific War and had shown the darker side of the conflict. This perspective on Japanese war history highlighted Japan’s role as a victimizer and aggressor in the war rather than as a victim. The victim narrative was the perspective that the MOE wanted to show to the students in their textbooks and also what the Japanese government wanted to portray to the public. As Ienaga set about with his sixth revision of Shin Nihonshi (1967 edition) the Ministry screened the edition but could find no improvements. It is also worth noting that each of the lawsuits stayed dormant in the court process and in the public eye, long after they had begun.

The chief objective of the second lawsuit (1967) was the same as the first but its advantages were that it was an administrative suit, the legal procedure was less complicated than that of the earlier “damage claim” suit. By the end of 1967, because of the first suit, details of the textbook screening process and the exact reasons for the rejection of Ienaga’s textbook were emerging, despite government resistance. The second suit was ruled in Ienaga’s favour in 1970 at the Tokyo District Court, where it was then passed up to the Tokyo High Court where it won again. The first lawsuit however didn’t do as well as the Tokyo District Court agreed there had been some ‘abuses of power but that the state had the right to regulate the content of education and declared state textbook screening constitutional.’ [3] Ienaga’s victories as well as the mild public attention that the cases were getting allowed the system to become relaxed allowing more material concerning Japanese war atrocities could be included. In 1973 for example, Ienaga’s revised Shin Nihonshi passed the screening process even though it included more detailed passages about Japan’s invasion of China and Japanese colonial policy in Korea.

However things began to change after the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) won a majority in both Houses in 1980, and continued stressing a need for a more nationalist curriculum. The LDP had significant of support from Right-Wing intellectuals, economists and big businesses who agreed the need for a more patriotic history. Even against this, the highly public battles and media attention showed how state control over education had strengthened and how Japanese wartime atrocities were becoming water-down in textbooks.

The third lawsuit’s goal in 1982 ‘was still to demonstrate the unconstitutionally of state textbooks screening. In the third suit, however, he and his counsel challenged the Ministry’s “abuses of power” in requesting or suggesting changes of textbook descriptions concerning specific historical events.’ [4] Ienaga also challenged eight specific points in ‘arena of historical truths’ – 4 on the Japanese invasion of China, 1 concerned with Japanese colonisation of Korea, another involved the battle of Okinawa and two cover domestic protests against imperial power. In 1989 the third lawsuit passed the Tokyo District Court and was appealed to the High Court. Ienaga wanted to win the main point that state textbook screening was unconstitutional. In 1993 the Tokyo High Court ruled that Ienaga’s contention regarding the Nanjing massacre had, through the Ministry’s screening process, been excessive and unlawful but ruled against Ienaga on Unit 731. It finally reached the Supreme Court after an appeal from Ienaga in 1997 and reached a conclusion that allowed Ienaga to mention Unit 731. The Supreme Court deemed in 1989 that the second suit had no benefit because Ienaga’s 1969 book was no longer in use anyway. The first lawsuit was dismissed in 1993 as the court claimed that the Ministry had not been excessively unreasonable. ‘Although Ienaga lost his attempt to ban government textbook screening as unconstitutional, the court held that the Ministry’s requests for revision must be based on views, verified or commonly accepted in the field of history.’ [5]

To conclude, the textbook trials undertaken by Ienaga were a long and difficult process, in which he faced an influential foe in the form of the Ministry of Education. The trials showed to the people of Japan and the World the dangers of covering up history as it is very difficult to move into the future without solving the problems of the past. The screening process stills goes on today, every three years or so a new or revised Conservative and Progressive textbook is screened and then it is decided whether they it is suitable for release. Ienaga’s efforts and successes should not be forgotten as they represent an important turning point in the memorialisation of Japanese war history in Japan. The trials therefore, reflect the growing need in Japanese society for a national history and identity that incorporates both a victim and victimizer narrative.

References and sources

[1] R, Huntsberry., ‘“Suffering History”: the textbook trial of Ienaga Saburo’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (1976), 253.
[2] Philip Seaton., Japan’s Contested War Memories: The ‘memory rifts’ in historical consciousness of World War II (London, 2007), 145.
[3] Yoshiko, Nozaki & Hiromitsu, Inokuchi., ’Japanese Education, Nationalism, and Ienaga Saburō’s Textbook Lawsuits’, in Laura Hein and Mark Selden (ed.), Censoring History, Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany and the United States (New York, 2000), 109.
[4] Ibid., 114
[5] Ibid., 119

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