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Japan's history divide comes home in textbook row

TOKYO (Reuters) - When Japanese soldiers gave out grenades to residents of Okinawa toward the end World War Two, Kiku Nakayama says she and her friends knew what they were for.

Then a teenage military nurse, she was told to fend for herself when the hospital where she worked was abandoned as U.S. forces approached.

“We were given grenades and we all interpreted that to mean we should use them to kill ourselves,” Nakayama said.

“Many people were given two and told to throw one at the enemy and finish themselves off with the other.”

More than 200,000 people died in the ferocious three-month battle for the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, about half of them civilians.

Some Okinawans committed suicide or were killed by relatives rather than face capture by Americans they had been taught to see as demons. No one knows how many died that way, but the local Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper recently put the figure at least 995.

Nakayama, 78, is one of many Okinawans outraged by a March government order that high-school textbook publishers remove references to soldiers forcing residents to kill themselves.

The move came under conservative then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known for his eagerness to escape what right-wing historians refer to as Japan’s “masochistic” view of wartime history.

Nakayama was captured by U.S. troops after hiding for weeks. “I was so ashamed,” she recalled in an interview. “We had been taught over and over that Japanese must never become prisoners of war, so we thought we would be the only ones.”

A September rally against the order drew more than 100,000 people, organizers said, and this week a 167-strong delegation flew to Tokyo to protest directly to the government.

The row is a domestic twist in a decades-old dispute over responsibility for the Japanese military’s wartime actions that has long dogged Tokyo’s relations with its Asian neighbors.


Revisions to the accounts of the Okinawa suicides were urged by many of the same nationalist scholars who lobbied for changes to textbooks that critics have said whitewashed Japan’s wartime atrocities in Asia. Textbook revisions were one cause of sometimes violent anti-Japan protests in China in 2005.

“The textbooks are simply an example of the politicization of history in northeast Asia,” said Andrew Horvat, a professor at Tokyo Keizai University. “They are perceived to be an official statement by the government on history.”

Japanese textbooks must be approved by a central government panel -- in contrast to England, for example, where schools can choose any teaching materials.

Germany has regional textbook screening but the procedure has never become embroiled in historical controversy, experts say.

Other East Asian nations are closer to the Japanese model.

China’s textbooks are state-issued, as are some in South Korea, while Taiwan has a central screening system, according to Claudia Schneider, an expert affiliated with Germany’s Georg Eckert Institute for international textbook research.


Okinawa’s anger is also a reminder of the island’s separate past, memories of which still stir resentment of the mainland.

Formerly known as the Ryukyu kingdom, Okinawa had ties to China and only became a part of Japan in the 19th century.

The assimilation process was painful and older Okinawans recall with anger harsh punishments for speaking their local dialect in schools as late as the 1960s.

The U.S. post-war occupation of the island ended in 1972, but Okinawa is still home to the bulk of American forces in Japan, another cause for simmering frustrations.

“You can say Okinawa is not part of Japan,” said Sven Saaler, associate professor of history at Tokyo University. “It is a problem between Japan and a former colony,” he added.

Textbook publishers are preparing to apply to the education ministry for permission to reinstate the references to the military’s role in the suicides.

In contrast to his predecessor Abe, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has expressed sympathy for Okinawa’s protests.

Campaigners say there is no time to lose.

“I am one of those who lived through the war and in 10 years I will be 85,” Toshinobu Nakasato, speaker of the Okinawa assembly told a news conference this week. “I don’t know if we will be of an age to act as witnesses by then.”