December 27, 2007 / 7:36 AM / 10 years ago

Japan divided by compromise on wartime suicides

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s deep internal divide over its wartime history shows little sign of narrowing after the government compromised on school textbook references to military involvement in mass suicides in Okinawa in 1945.

Many in Japan’s southernmost prefecture were infuriated by a government decision, made under conservative then-prime minister Shinzo Abe this year, to cut from history textbooks a reference to the army forcing people to kill themselves as U.S. troops invaded Okinawa in the final stages of World War Two.

Okinawan leaders guardedly welcomed new wording proposed by publishers and accepted by Education Minister Kisaburo Tokai on Wednesday, which mentions Japanese military involvement but stops short of saying soldiers forced people to kill themselves.

“I think they have more or less done what we asked for, which was to restore the references to the mass suicides,” Toshinobu Nakasato, speaker of the Okinawan assembly, which passed resolutions condemning the previous texts, said in a statement.

But he and others remained dissatisfied that direct coercion was not mentioned in accounts of the bloody Battle of Okinawa because historians on a textbook panel said there was no evidence of military orders to commit suicide.

“I think there can be coercion without a direct order,” said Kiku Nakayama, a military nurse on Okinawa during the war, who says grenades were handed out when her hospital was disbanded.

“I really want them to include something about how people were forced,” she added in a telephone interview.

One of the eight high school textbooks will now include a reference to the military distributing two grenades each to a group of young people, ordering them to use one on the enemy and the other to kill themselves.

Conservative media blasted the revisions, symbolic of changes made under moderate Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who has distanced himself from some of his nationalist predecessor’s policies since he took office in September.

Some newspapers said the government had been swayed into a political decision by a September demonstration on Okinawa, which organizers said attracted 110,000 people, although the Yomiuri Shimbun quoted a security firm as estimating the figure was closer to 20,000.

“The government should never repeat the stupidity of allowing political intervention in the textbook screening process,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial, whose sentiments were echoed by the conservative Sankei newspaper.

Tokyo’s dispute with Okinawa, a separate kingdom until the 19th century, is a domestic echo of long-running rows with other Asian countries, especially China, over responsibility for Japan’s invasion and occupation of much of the region before and during the war.

Some conservative historians in Japan, for example, deny troops massacred civilians in Nanjing in 1937, where China says 300,000 died. But the issue, along with that of Asian women used as sex slaves by the Japanese military in the early 20th century, also divides the Japanese public.

Japan and China set up a joint panel of historians a year ago, aiming to narrow their differences over history.

As in some other Asian countries, Japan’s school textbooks must be approved by central government panels, meaning their contents are often seen as the official government line.

Editing by Jerry Norton

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