CHILDRENS' textbooks in the social sciences tend to reflect accurately the values of a society. Since their lessons and morals are set forth in direct and simple language, they indicate in bold outline the things which the society, or part of it, thinks it important for the young to absorb. In Japan today such textbooks show a striking contrast to those used before the surrender of 1945, and they deserve attention as evidence of the rapid change of values that has taken place in some parts of Japanese society.

Recently the new textbooks have come under sharp attack. The debate over educational policy is one of the most important and least publicized struggles in contemporary Japan, and the controversy furnishes an excellent opportunity for judging the nature of change in Japanese society. That change has been sectional and uneven, differing in quality between those who teach and those who govern. There is a particular contrast between the way in which segments of the intelligentsia interpret the new moral basis of Japanese education and the way in which the political leaders, the liberals and moderates of prewar years, cling to the old ethic of their younger days.

The struggle focuses sharply on who is going to write the textbooks. Since Japanese society has been open and free in recent years, the textbooks in use today reflect the values and concerns of the intellectuals, or at least of the articulate and representative minority which gives the broader group its tone. To be sure, the intellectuals are not a united or clearly definable group, and neither are the so-called "conservatives." Yet there is a large area of agreement within each group. Each is convinced the other is determined to destroy its influence by alienating the minds and affections of Japan's 20,000,000 lower-school pupils.

The education controversy also throws light on reforms effected during the American Occupation. One can see where these fell short, where form was confused with substance, and one can also see where they satisfied long-standing needs. One is also struck by the way institutions can serve purposes other than those for which they were designed. Certification of textbooks, for instance, installed by Occupation planners to eliminate nationalistic and militarist indoctrination, has been continued by Ministry of Education officials who now utilize the system to ward off excessive anti-militarist and anti-nationalist teachings. The government leaders have discovered the possibility of putting old wine into new bottles.


Any doubt that the education system is in the forefront of the political struggle in Japan today should have been removed by the behavior of the House of Councillors in late May of 1956. The Hatoyama Cabinet had sponsored legislation making the Boards of Education appointive instead of elective. The Socialist minority, responsive to the appeals of the powerful Teachers Union, fought to prevent final action by all the methods known to other parliamentary bodies and by some of its own devising. In answer, the Government mobilized 500 policemen in and around the chamber. The outnumbered Socialists were then unable to prevent action on the bill, which passed June 1 amid scenes of wild disorder.

This marked the first substantial change in the organizational pattern which had been instituted during the American Occupation. Many Japanese liberals concluded that local politicians would now be able to warp the education system back to some of its prewar themes. Others, however, pointed out that the elective Boards of Education had not been outstanding successes, and that the same liberals had complained earlier of their domination by local political bosses. Perhaps all that can be said is that there is no longer the possibility that the Boards can become effective elective bodies.

Other organizational aspects of the new educational system are not yet under serious attack. The pattern of grammar, junior high and high schools leading to the colleges seems to have considerable support. And although there are many who deplore the rise in the number of colleges and universities in which today more than half a million students are enrolled, vested interests in the form of local pride and status-conscious faculties make it unlikely these institutions will be reduced.

A bill affecting the manner of selecting textbooks in lower schools which failed to pass the 1956 Diet was in many ways much more important than the changes which affected the Boards of Education. It would have altered the machinery of textbook certification to allow for greater bureaucratic control. This is a matter which could immediately affect the content of education, and it is the more significant in view of the history of Japanese textbooks.

Before the end of World War II, schools in all parts of Japan used uniform textbooks prepared by the Ministry of Education. The system of national textbooks was instituted in 1903. Loyalty and duty, taught in ethics (shūshin) textbooks and reinforced by lessons in history, geography and language, were the core of the value structure. The ideology had been given its definitive statement in the Imperial Rescript on Education of 1890, which cited loyalty and filial piety as "the Glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and . . . the source of Our Education." The principal revisions in the national textbooks came in 1910, after the annexation of Korea; in 1918, after World War I; in 1933, after Manchuria; and in 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Except for the 1918 version, each revision tended to strengthen the nationalist content of the textbooks. Information about the outside world, names of famous foreign figures and descriptions of other social systems diminished, to be replaced by increasing emphasis on the benefits of Japan's family state. As symbols of that state, the Imperial Rescript and the Imperial portrait were the center of reverence at school ceremonies. The textbooks provided most of the content of Japanese education. Teachers expounded them, and for the pupils they represented ultimate truth. In the words of the United States Education Mission to Japan, the education system, "through prescription, textbooks, examinations and inspection, lessened the opportunities of teachers to exercise professional freedom. The measure of efficiency was the degree to which standardization and uniformity were secured."[i]

Occupation reformers set to work to change this system of sacrosanct textbooks. They had the advice of leading American educators as well as the enthusiastic coöperation of Japanese educators--for the intellectuals, unlike the landlords, militarists, zaibatsu and politicians, were eager to help in reforming themselves. Under the new Fundamental Law of Education of 1947 it became the duty of the education system "to contribute to the peace of the world and the welfare of humanity by building a democratic and cultural state." Education was to strive for "the full development of personality," and peace, democracy and international coöperation were to become the themes for the new system.

Basic revisions of the curriculum followed. The old training in ethics was ruled out, and in the lower schools history and geography disappeared as separate subjects. Henceforth, the new laws stated, efforts were to be made "to develop a proper understanding of the actual conditions and traditions both of children's native communities and of the country, and further to cultivate the spirit of international coöperation."[ii] Out of this came new courses in social studies, with textbooks bearing titles like "Akarui Shakai" ("The Enlightened Society") and "Shakai no Kōzō" ("The Structure of Society"). In content and approach these differed sharply from the previous eulogies of samurai and Emperors.

Japan's postwar textbooks have been produced privately. The system works as follows: The Education Ministry provides course-of-study outlines for each age level and indicates the material that should be covered. Each November and December publishers present drafts to the Ministry, which then refers them to five readers selected from a list of qualified educators. These men judge the work against the curriculum requirements and determine whether or not it is neutral in politics and religion and in harmony with the Fundamental Law of Education. In other words, the drafts have to support internationalism, peace and democracy. The readers do not know whose manuscript they read, and their verdicts are reported anonymously. The next step involves a review by a committee of 16, also appointed by the Ministry, which reconsiders the manuscript in case of sharp disagreements among the original readers. Until recently this committee verdict, identified as "Opinion F," was a formality.

If the manuscript is approved, the publisher can list his book. He now sends sample copies to one thousand textbook exhibits which are held throughout Japan in late June. Representatives of schools and school boards come to these exhibits, make their selections and file their orders. The publishers then print the required number of copies. As before the war, parents buy the texts for their children. The textbooks are no longer uniform and standard, and since they change constantly and are poorly bound and disintegrate rapidly they have become a major form of private enterprise. Many jobs are involved; in 1955, 92 textbook publishers printed over 230,000,000 textbooks. A sixth grade teacher had a choice of 173 books.

Keen competition for sales results. Lateness in having the copies at the exhibits is disastrous, and many publishers have printed a large number of books, confident of certification, only to lose expensive gambles. Efforts to influence selection or adoption boards have also resulted in the inevitable round of hot-spring and banquet parties, caustically referred to by the press as the "publishers' treat" policy. In one case an entire committee from distant Kagoshima was invited to Tokyo to inspect printing facilities and stayed to be shown more expensive and entertaining spots as well. This is important for it provides arguments for government publicists who charge that the new system is really costing the parents more money than the old national textbooks did. Those books were good everywhere, they could be reused, and, like everything else before the war, they were inexpensive.

But the real struggle is over content. In August 1955 the Democratic Party issued a pamphlet entitled "Ureubeki Kyōkasho no Mondai" ("The Problem of the Dreadful Textbooks"). This was prepared by a party commission which drew on records of a House of Representatives committee as well as on many popular attacks on textbooks. It tried to link the Teachers Union with the Japanese Communist Party, and charged that Union leaders were writing misleading and slanted texts which were poisoning the minds of the young as well as emptying the pockets of their parents. The attack was badly overdone. Education Ministry officials denied ever having seen the pamphlet, and the press was quick with charges of McCarthyism. But the pamphlet had some results. It probably convinced some of its readers, since it was issued all over the country through party offices. It frightened the publishers, who the following year quietly withdrew most of the textbooks attacked. And it convinced the intellectuals, if they needed convincing, of the depravity of the Liberal-Democratic leaders.

Those leaders next prepared the bill changing the system of certification which failed to pass the 1956 Diet. Since then, administrative measures have been taken to achieve some of the same results. Beginning with junior high school, social science textbooks are again to be divided into sections on history, geography and current problems. The committee of 16 readers will now be drawn from a panel of 80, so that specialists can judge each subject. New policies toward "controversial" textbooks have gone into effect, and "Opinion F" now plays a more active rôle.

A particularly striking case was the rejection of a junior high school text called "Nihon no Shakai" ("Japanese Society") which had been a nation-wide best-seller with a half-million sales. "Opinion F" rejected a revision of the book on grounds that it was overly partial to the new constitution, unbalanced in its treatment of basic human rights and portrayed World War II in excessively dark colors.

There was a good deal of money at stake here, and publishers and authors quickly traced Opinion F to its source. The strong man on the committee of 16 turned out to be Professor Iwao Kōyama of Japan University. He, it seems, had done some detective work of his own, and had traced the unsigned manuscript he was reading to its authors, recognizing them as leading figures in the Teachers Union and, worse still, co-authors of one of the texts which had been singled out for attack by the government-party pamphlet.

Out of this has come a new phrase for the lexicon of current slogans, "F purge," and the periodicals have been full of indignation. Press interviews with Professor Kōyama have shown him distrustful of the idea of treating social sciences together (although he thinks it natural for a country without a history like America), and convinced that it is time to resurrect Japanese patriotism.

This is where the matter stands at present. It is clear that the Ministry, whether or not it gets its way with proposed legislative changes, has enough power to keep textbooks from going too far to the left. It can revise curricula and force a review of current texts at any time. It is equally clear that many of the textbook writers are deeply concerned by what they see as a trend back toward old-style patriotism. Symbolic of their position is the refusal of elementary school teachers in several cities to lead their pupils in singing the national anthem, on grounds that its reverence for the Imperial family is out of harmony with the new democracy. Meanwhile, there is the ironic sight of the elderly conservatives who sit as judges of what the young shall read, to see that it is in harmony with laws which they did not make, do not like and seek to change. Seldom have there been such travellers, lonely and afraid, in a world they never made.


The conflict of values comes into sharpest relief when textbooks are judged against the criteria of conformity with the new educational standards. So much emotion and belief, and so much history, are involved in the application of these criteria that in many cases there is not a sufficient area of agreement to permit of compromise.

For instance, textbooks are required to be "neutral." They must not lean toward any particular religion or program or party, and they must support the goals of the Fundamental Law--that is, peace, democracy and international coöperation. For the better part of the intellectuals, however, "neutrality" means that there must be no support for the Emperor system, Shintō, the national anthem, the Ise shrines and other traditional supports of the pre-surrender Japanese state. "Neutrality" means that discussions of such subjects will be hostile or that they will be avoided altogether. Support of peace and democracy, on the other hand, will require a vigorous exposition of the evils of prewar Japanese government and policies and, logically, support of the early Occupation and its work in reforming these evils. And since social studies are to contribute to an understanding of current problems, the textbook discussions are more than likely to lead to reflections on the nature of current Japanese society, government and politics, to the discredit of whatever elements seem to be linked with or to champion revivals of prewar trends. In other words, "neutrality," as interpreted and understood by the textbook writers, usually produces material that will be considered "slanted" by those who judge the books. And for the textbook writers the conservatives' preference for patriotism and rearmament constitutes an equally pronounced "slanting" toward pre-surrender themes.

These problems of approach are particularly apparent in the treatment of Japanese history. An analysis of 21 standard textbooks shows that most of them treat the emergence of the Imperial family only to illustrate growing power differentiation in early Japan.[iii] Only six mention the Imperial shrines at Ise, which were central to the pre-surrender lessons, and most brush aside the formerly sacred mythology as untrue. The periods of classical Japanese culture are treated not so much in terms of achievement as of the burden they placed on the commoners. All the books lay great stress on Japan's debt to China; some, indeed, go beyond cultural admiration. Feudalism, of course, comes in for extended treatment, and the fears of the present and recent past intrude on the treatment given the Middle Ages. Feudalism, the definitions run, is reactionary because it tries to preserve the past; it is the opposite of democratic, and it allows 6 percent of the population to bully the other 94 percent.

In dealing with the modern period, only four of the 21 books give much space to the Emperor Meiji's Charter Oath of 1868, which was long cited as the beginning of Japan's democratic changes; instead, they prefer to stress the theme of absolutism. Japan's modern wars are shown as the inevitable result of the search for markets and profits, and for the 1930s and 1940s the story is one of unrelieved oppression at home and aggression abroad, resolved finally by liberation under the Occupation. The new constitution and the postwar freedoms are everywhere praised. One textbook, in fact, is so enthusiastic that it maintains that the new constitution, unlike the old, was prepared by the people--surely a case where approbation has gone beyond "neutrality."

This determinedly anti-militarist emphasis has some interesting results. Parents whose children come home without having heard of the great warrior heroes of the past and unable to cite many of the Emperors usually conclude that history is no longer being taught. After all, that is what they were taught as "history." And what are they to make of a treatment of the Russo-Japanese War which makes no mention of General Nogi, the commander at Port Arthur (none of the 21 textbooks does so) but has room for enthusiastic accounts of the handful of pacifists who refused to support the war? This is partly because the textbook writers have such a difficult time finding heroes of democracy and peace to write about. When they turn to foreign examples like Lincoln, their critics deplore this too and call for an independent history with a revival of patriotism.

What is behind this desire for a revival of patriotism? The textbook writers think they know. They see it organically related to plans for constitutional revision, for reëmphasizing the place of the Emperor, for changes in the civil codes governing family law, and for rearmament. And so the writers, defending peace and democracy in their teaching, feel they are fighting a return to militarism and absolutism. Since they remember the way in which changes were made in the textbook system in prewar days, they naturally see it their duty to stand and fight here and now.

What of their opponents? Some of them are genuinely scandalized by what they read in the textbooks. Others are politicians who see a useful issue. Still others, senior scholars trained in the old tradition, are appalled by some of the slipshod generalizations which have been substituted for more factual accounts. Most of them, it is safe to say, are patriotic men who feel that there is much of nobility and valor in the history of prewar Japan which should again become a legacy for the scholars of young Japan. They see it as an injustice to the pupils not to give it to them.

The problems of textbook certification thus reveal a profound lack of agreement on the ethical core of democracy in Japan. A century of Western contact has served to invalidate most of the standards of traditional Japan. For much of the first half of the twentieth century intense xenophobia and ultra-nationalism concealed basic ideological differences in Japanese society. With defeat and surrender, the "modern" blend of archaic Shintō with twentieth century nationalism lost its supporters, and it has no longer been possible to conceal the crevices in what had seemed a united front. Patriotism, long the highest virtue, is now controversial and suspect; national strength, which so long held precedence over individual needs in the teachings of the government schools, has become, for many, irreconcilable with individual well-being and security.


In this controversy, the social rôle and emotional state of mind of the intellectuals are central elements. During most of Japan's modern century, intellectuals have acted as transmitters of foreign ideas and values. Like their counterparts in other Asian societies, they have interpreted and explained for their countrymen the standards and beliefs of the Western world.

Unlike their counterparts in other Asian countries, however, Japanese intellectuals were for a considerable period of time in substantial agreement with their political leaders on the need for utilizing Western experience in achieving the goals of national strength and unity. During the second half of the nineteenth century the intellectuals were few, but they were highly respected and very influential. With the twentieth century came increasing sophistication and discrimination. The intellectuals' horizons broadened; they were more numerous, but also less close to the seats of power and influence; many became alienated from the values of their own society. In the fevered crises of the 1930s and 1940s, however, the essentials of national unity were preserved.

In the postwar scene Japanese intellectuals have been more numerous and far more vocal than ever before. They have had the outlook of an élite in a society no longer willing to grant them this rôle; many of their supposed adversaries are as well educated as they. The intellectuals as a group show much the same cast of mind as do their fellows in underdeveloped Asian countries; unlike them, however, the Japanese spokesmen operate in a society with a high level of political and economic maturity and sophistication. Despite this limited ability to communicate with their peers, the intellectuals have been able to take advantage of the high level of popular education by appealing to their countrymen through the pages of the press and periodicals. Yet despite their key rôle in forming opinion, the intellectuals remain poor in votes. And today their monopoly over the materials of instruction is being sharply challenged after a decade during which they have had things largely their own way.

Their success so far has been due, in part, to the fact that they alone were prepared to join in the Occupation's sweeping condemnations of old Japan. They had, after all, been the principal casualties of the thought-control and ideological conformity in Imperial Japan; some of the most respected intellectual leaders of Japan today were dismissed from their posts during World War II and prosecuted as disloyal. These men and their followers recall the way in which statements of patriotism were used to carry out ideological indoctrination, and they do not want that to happen again.

At the same time, the tone of protest and concern which Japan's intellectuals emit is conditioned by the strongly Marxist trend of most historical and economic writing in postwar Japan. For many persuasive writers, including those with large student followings, Lenin's theories of imperialism, the economic causation of war and the "contradictions" which led to modern Japan's "absolutism" are all firmly held as provable beliefs. Hence, in their view, Japan's postwar structure, while superior to the pre-surrender state, is nevertheless ordained to suffer the consequences of the general capitalist doom.

Marxism had long had great, though not always overt, influence as a "scientific" approach to history and social science. In Japan, as elsewhere in Asia, intellectuals were drawn to its comprehensive vision of the meaning of history; in its all-encompassing claims they saw a possible substitute for the values in their own tradition that had ceased to draw them, and they saw in it a rôle for themselves as the prophets, theorists and élite of the new society. In the early postwar days of Allied unity, of sweeping reforms and of ideological confusion, Marxist thought was able to make tremendous headway. Since then, the international conditions which underlay the pacifism of the new constitution and the shallowness that saw militarism as the only possible enemy of Japanese democracy have changed. But important groups of Japanese intellectuals still retain that outlook, and this 1946 attitude in 1956 makes for a dark picture of the world. This is particularly true of the leaders of the powerful Teachers Union; their view of world affairs helps to shape their determined stand in domestic affairs.

The intellectuals' view of their own recent history and of America's participation in it is further affected by the feeling that, but for a change in American policy, things might have turned out differently. The early Occupation, with its sweeping condemnation of old Japan as "feudal" and its calls for a new society, was very much to their liking. In 1948, for instance, General MacArthur could denounce prewar private enterprise as "limited to a few of feudal lineage, who exploited into virtual slavery the remainder of the Japanese people, permitted higher standards of life to others only through sufferance, and in search of further plunder abroad furnished the tools for the military to embark upon its ill-fated venture into world conquest. The record is thus one of economic oppression and exploitation at home, aggression and spoliation abroad."[iv] This is not very good history. By the end of the Occupation it was no longer good politics, and in 1957 it would certainly be considered "slanted" by any textbook committee of the Ministry of Education.

In any event, it was to be expected that the intellectual atmosphere in Japan should change more rapidly than either the school system or the society. Currents of thought which were largely taboo under the militarists' rule became popular to the point of being almost compulsory after the militarists were discredited. The old virtues, the old heroes and the old values were firmly rejected, and the search for meaning and progress in Japanese history became a search for previously unsung heroes and causes that had stood out against the flooding tide of militarism.

No group of scholars or writers had the prestige and purposefulness which the postwar Marxists showed. And so for a decade now the Marxist interpretation of history has been equated with "progressive" and "scientific" thinking; Marxist concepts have gone unchallenged even among non-Marxist writers. Inevitably, this overwhelming preponderance of Marxist interpretation and analysis has been reflected in the textbook popularizations of the scholarly literature. The "men of culture," as the intellectuals are called, are therefore quite correct when they reply to criticisms of the texts that they are in line with the latest and most "scientific" thinking. Whether that thinking, in turn, is in line with the best in social science methodology, however, is another question. But in Japan it is only beginning to become a respectable question.

In some ways, however, the trend of academic work seems to be toward more meticulous and responsible scholarship. The postwar generalizers were too busy writing to have much time for documents and facts. This is no longer the case. But since it is still early in the partial turn from Marxist theory to empirical research, and since in large measure the alternative seems still to be the dreary chronicle of heroes and rationale of prewar acts that many critics would prefer, it is small wonder that the historians, the teachers and the Socialists are prepared to stake their all in the education controversy. For in their minds the alternative is a system like the one from which they were liberated--which, if established again, would isolate them completely from their countrymen within a generation.

It must be added that not all intellectuals are Marxists (although the more influential and popular writers are) and that not nearly all of the intellectual Marxists are pro-Communist. And, while glaring imbalances have been shown to exist in some textbooks, and although the men who write them occasionally use their "neutrality" to lean in the direction of the mainland, on the whole the situation is still far and away superior to that prevailing before the war. Moreover, existing controls at the command of the Ministry of Education would seem to rule out the possibility of large-scale subversion through textbooks.

At the same time, the conservatives seem to an outsider to be far less united and purposeful in their objectives than the intellectuals claim. No responsible persons have suggested that the ideas of suiting education to life, substituting learning for indoctrination and making equal educational opportunities available as widely as possible are bad or should be abolished. Even the suggestions that have been made for revision of the status of the Emperor, while they may lead to others, are in themselves a far cry from anything that could safely have been suggested in pre-surrender Japan. The climate of opinion has shifted so far to the left that there would seem little possibility that it can return.

As yet, however, no middle ground for ideological unity and stability is in sight. It is true that on both sides of the education struggle there are to be found large numbers of men of good will and high intelligence whose opinions are their own and who follow neither government pamphlets nor Teachers Union propaganda. It should not be thought that the half-million members of the Teachers Union are accurately represented in their political emotions and affiliations by their vigorous leaders, or that the questioning attitude of the Japanese public is reflected by the obstinate determination of the Diet's conservative majority. But so long as no middle position develops the battleground will be dominated by spokesmen of the left and right, who are contending for the right to determine the way the Japanese of tomorrow will understand their country and their world.

[i]Report . . ., submitted to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, Tokyo, March 20, 1946 (Washington: G.P.O., 1946), p. 7.

[ii] The Fundamental Law and School Education Law can be found in Education in the New Japan (Tokyo: Education Division, Civil Information and Education Section, SCAP, 1948), v. 2, pp. 109, 112.

[iii] A private organization calling itself the Committee for Study of Instruction in History (Rekishi Kyōiku Mondai Kenkyū Kai) has issued a 288-page analysis of textbooks. The Committee's standards are clearly very conservative, but since they produce extensive quotations from each book on a number of issues there is no reason not to use their work. "Kyōkasho ni kansuru chōsa: Chū-Tō rekishi kyōkasho no hihan" (Investigations of Textbooks: Criticism of Junior and Senior High School History Textbooks), (mimeographed), Tokyo, March 1956.

[iv] "Reply to Criticism of Economic Policy" (a letter to J. H. Gipson, of Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho) in Political Reorientation of Japan, September 1945 to September 1948, Government Section, SCAP (Washington: G.P.O., 1949), v. 2, p. 780.

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  • MARIUS B. JANSEN, Associate Professor of Japanese History, University of Washington; author of "The Japanese and Sun Yat-sen"
  • More By Marius B. Jansen