The History Problem

On August 28, 1945, two days before General MacArthur arrived in Japan as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), the Ministry of Education sent out this advisement to the prefectural governments and school heads:

Concerning textbooks and teaching materials, in the light of the objectives of the Imperial Rescript proclaimed on 14 August [Imperial Rescript of the Termination of the War], due care will be exercised in their use and appropriate measures taken to omit parts of the lessons.

One month later, the Ministry of Education further distilled its policy to adapt to the changing climate in postwar Japan by issuing the following:

  1. Although it will be permitted until further notice to continue to use existing textbooks in Middle Schools, Youth Schools and National Schools, it is required that all teaching materials that are inappropriate in the light of the intentions of the Imperial Rescript proclaiming the end of the war be struck out in whole or in part or be handled with the utmost of care. . . .
  2. The following are materials which ought to be used with care, amended or eliminated: (a) Materials that emphasize national defense and armaments; (b) materials fostering the fighting spirit; (c) materials that may be harmful to international goodwill;(d) materials that have become obsolete through being entirely removed from present postwar condition and the everyday life of the students. . . .
  3. In cases where it is necessary to make up for material omitted, select and supplement from the following subjects, keeping in mind place and circumstances: materials concerning the maintenance of the kokutai (rule by the emperor and imperial sovereignty) and the establishment of high moral education; materials suitable for the education of the people of a civilized country; materials concerning increased agricultural production; materials fostering the scientific spirit and its practical application; materials on physical education and hygiene; materials on international peace.1

Following this order teachers and students all over the country deleted objectionable passages in the wartime textbooks with a “cut first and create later” philosophy followed by a complete ban of texts on morals, Japanese history, and geography.2 At the core of this process were objections concerning the integration of “State Shinto,” which critics regarded as wartime propaganda. All further use of State Shinto tenets in teachers’ manuals and textbooks was prohibited.

It was within this climate that four Japanese historians, including Ienaga Saburo, were called to the Ministry of Education on May 17, 1946. At this meeting they received instructions from an American who laid down three conditions in the writing of the first postwar textbook:

  1. It will not be propagandistic.
  2. It will not advocate militarism, ultranationalism, and Shinto doctrine.
  3. It will not be based on the view of history expressed in Kokutai no Hongi (Fundamentals of our National Polity).

Their task was also further supported by Article 21 of the 1947 constitution that stated:

Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.3

By 1963, less than 20 years after the end of the war, the Japanese government had reversed their stance. New demands declared that sections in Japanese history textbooks delete entire historical episodes and any language describing wartime aggressions, including the Nanjing Atrocities. Two years later Ienaga, with the support of other historians, filed the first of several lawsuits against the Japanese government, charging censorship and initiating what has become known today as Japan’s “history problem,” the inaccurate accounting of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea as well as its involvement in a range of wartime atrocities including what occurred in Nanjing.

Over the years Ienaga gained some successes including the inclusion and historical truth about the crimes of Unit 731, the “military comfort women,” and the Japanese Imperial Army’s role in the atrocities in Nanjing.4But conservative factions denounced these efforts and continued their campaign to reconstruct Japan’s national history, particularly around World War II. In 2001 the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform waged another successful campaign to soften, and at times remove, entire sections of texts related to the new treatment of the Nanjing Atrocities that had previously been changed. Their arguments range from claiming the reports and accounting of the atrocities were simply a consequence of war to claiming the history has been greatly exaggerated to denying the documentary proof of its occurrence altogether.

Professor Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, a scholar who believes education and an accurate accounting of the Nanjing Atrocities is important, has read several edits of their textbooks and offers the following perspective on their motivations:

They [Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform] want Japanese youths to feel pride in their nation by learning about positive, not just negative, dimensions in history. They argue that, until recently, a “masochistic” view of Japan’s history has . . . pervaded public education and the media.5

In reflecting on the lawsuit years later, Ienaga shared his motivewios for dedicating the majority of his adult professional life to confronting the system of government-approved textbook circulation:

I am a member of the prewar generation and because of that reckless war, millions of my countrymen suffered wretched deaths in the wilds of the continent, the depths of the sea, and the recesses of the jungle. And they died miserable deaths in the air raids and atomic bombings. Fortunately, I survived. But I was unable to make any effort for the sake of my ancestral country to stop the reckless war, and I felt heartfelt remorse for the sin of having been a futile bystander to the tragedy of my country. If I were to die today without opposing educational policies that extol war ... on my deathbed I would ask why I had once again done nothing to prevent it. I never want to repeat the experience of such remorse. Although I am a single citizen with little power, I embarked on this lawsuit with the desire to atone for even a tiny fraction of the sin of not having resisted the war.6

Ienaga Saburo died in 2002. Today, the Japanese government does not designate a singular textbook to be used across the nation. Instead local school boards decide which texts will be used within their specific jurisdiction.


  • 1 : Kindai Nihon Kyoiku Seido Shiryo Hensan Kai (Editorial Committee for Materials on the Modern Japanese Educational System), Kindai Nihon Kyoiku Seid Shiryo [Materials on the Modern Japanese Educational System], (Kodansha, 1957) XVIII, 488, quoted in John Caiger, “Ienaga Saburo and the First Postwar Japanese Textbook Author,” Modern Asian Studies, 3, no. 1, (1969): 2–3.
  • 2 : Herbert John Wunderlich, “The Japanese Textbook Problem and Solution, 1945-1946” (dissertation, Stanford University, 1952), 236, quoted in Caiger, “Ienaga Saburo.”
  • 3 : de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition, 1033.
  • 4 : Both Unit 731 and military sexual slavery are important topics for research on their own and will not be covered in depth in this resource. Unit 731 was the biological and chemical warfare research and development program within the Japanese Imperial Army. The unit conducted human experimentation from 1937-1945 in Harbin, China. For further reading about Unit 731, see Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up(New York: Routledge, 2002).
  • 5 : Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (professor, York University), email to the author, January 1, 2014.
  • 6 : Ienaga Saburo, Ienaga Saburo kyokasho saiban, 2–7, quoted in de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition, 1285.

Connection Questions

  1. In some nations, history education can fuel extreme nationalism, incite violence and serve as a vehicle to spread propaganda. In other places, rethinking the way that history is taught is seen as an essential step to address past injustices. Why do discussions about history education often arouse such passion? What role does education, specifically the teaching of history, play in supporting a nation’s identity?
  2. Summarize the key education policy changes outlined by the Japanese Ministry of Education in the fall of 1945. What were the reasons for this policy change? What were their explicit priorities? Why do you think history education was one of the first changes implemented by the post-war government?
  3. What history problem do you think the title of this reading is referring to? Is there more than one problem? Why do you think the problem exists? Cite evidence from the reading that supports your claim.
  4. What motivated historian Ienaga Saburō’s efforts after the war? What reasons did he state for his dedication to postwar history education?
  5. What steps can be taken to develop curricula materials that avoid propaganda and bias? What measures can be taken in order to secure accuracy in the history curricula? Who needs to be involved? How do you decide on what content to teach?
  6. Changing and revising history curricula is one approach adopted by some nations following war or mass violence. In Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, the Ministry of Education implemented a moratorium on the teaching of history for over a decade. A moratorium is a suspension or a delay in a program or policy.1 What impact would preventing the teaching history have on a nation? If you were an advisor to a leader of a country recovering from war or mass violence, what advice would you give them as they thought about what to do with the way they teach about the past? Why?


  • 1 : Marlise Simons, “U.N. Court, for the First Time, Defines Rape as War Crime,” New York Times, June 28, 1996, accessed November 12, 2013.

Related Content

Genocide & Mass Violence

Refuting Denial

History education and documentation were the focal points for historian Ienaga Saburo. His successful suit against the Japanese government to change the method by which history textbooks were adopted and how events like the Nanjing Atrocities and the institution of military sexual slaves are included greatly impacted Japanese society.

Genocide & Mass Violence

A Nation's Past

Decades after the end of World War II in China, Sino-Japanese relations continue to remain strained. Conflicting memories and accounts of imperial Japan’s occupation of China and wartime atrocities remain one element of this discord. One of the most visible expressions of this tension arises regularly at the Yasukuni shrine.

Genocide & Mass Violence

The Road to War

For decades China endured the presence of military troops on her soil in accordance with the provisions of Article IX of the Boxer Protocol of 1901, allowing military guards to be posted and military maneuvers to be conducted at 12 specific points along this rail line. Chinese authorities were not required to be notified when such maneuvers took place. However, in the summer of 1937 Japan’s military presence had grown exceedingly large, causing alarm by the Chinese government. On the night of July 7, 1937, the Japanese Guandong Army, stationed on China’s South Manchurian Railroad, staged military night maneuvers. After several months of witnessing the growing presence of Japanese soldiers in the area (upward of 5,000), Chinese troops feared an attack was under way. Both sides fired blank shots at each other, and when the fighting stopped, a Japanese soldier was feared missing. In response, the Japanese commander ordered an attack on Wanping the next day. The Chinese were able to win this battle, but it is considered the beginning of World War II in East Asia.

Genocide & Mass Violence

What History Textbooks Leave Out

The teaching of Japan’s war history, specifically the story of the Nanjing Atrocities and the institution of military sexual slavery during World War II, continues to be a source of controversy within Japan and between Japan and nations it occupied during the war. In 2013 BBC reporter Oi Mariko reflected upon her own childhood education in Japan in the article “What Japanese History Lessons Leave Out.”

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.