Japan And South Korea: Ominous Politicisation Of History Textbooks – Analysis


By Rahul Raj*

The recent controversies in South Korea and Japan on the revisions of history textbooks have raised heated debates because of the criticism that the leaders of both countries are trying to rewrite important aspects of their nation’s histories to make them align with their own political interests. The conservative governments in both countries feel that the current crop of textbooks do not adequately reflect how they want their nations to be portrayed by history, making the issue a major flash-point of discussion on almost all levels of societies in both countries.

Since taking charge, the conservative party in Japan, under the leadership of incumbent Prime Minister Abe Shinzo Abe, has vowed to rewrite the nation’s history textbooks. Abe has often complained that various sections of the current textbooks comprise a ‘self-torturing history’ that has failed to instill a sense of national pride amongst the Japanese citizens. The Abe administration has often criticised the current syllabi as being less than patriotic, over-emphasising its colonial past, and of presenting a negative image of Japan.

Now, a similar undertaking is underway in South Korea as well, where incumbent President Park Guen-hye’s administration has been attempting to revise aspects of Korean history in the country’s textbooks under state control. President Park has said that new textbooks should instill a sense of pride amongst the South Korean citizens, and wants some aspects of the country’s history softened. This has led to public outcry as the government revisits the bad old days under the dictatorship of her father Park Chung-hee, who introduced state-designed textbooks in order to support his leadership in 1974. Incumbent President Park and her ruling conservative Saenuri party feels that the history textbooks currently in use are ideologically biased and do not reflect the true story of the Korean war. The conservatives are also concerned that former South Korean presidents Rhee Syngman and Park Chung-hee not be portrayed as dictators or authoritarians, although both had brutally crushed communist uprisings during their reigns in which thousands were killed.

Both Park and Abe have personal interests in the revision controversies because of family histories that involve possible human rights abuses. President Park’s father had crushed democracy protests against his rule and had also carried out massive human rights violations in the name of economic development in South Korea.

Many historians castigate him as a pro-Japanese dictator and blame him for much of the unresolved historical issues with Japan. The 1965 normalisation treaty between South Korea and Japan – the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea – that was signed during his time in office did not include the Dokdo/ Takeshima territorial issue, and the issue of comfort women was not even discussed. Furthermore, South Korea has a troubled history during the Vietnam War, where its troops committed a large number of atrocities, but this is a topic which is still a taboo in Korean society.

Former President Park Chung-hee had ordered the participation of South Korean troops in Vietnam not merely to support the US but in order to receive millions of dollars in monetary benefits from Washington, during and after the war.

Similarly, Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuko Kishi, worked under the then Prime Minister Hideki Tojo during World War II; and was infamous for ordering the taking of thousands of Koreans and Chinese to work in Japanese slave labour camps during the war. Kishi was implicated as a Class A war criminal by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers and was jailed for three years before later becoming the prime minister of Japan in 1957. Kishi has been a role model for Abe, who regards him as a pioneer of Japan’s post-war economic and social development. However, left-leaning scholars consider Kishi a symbol of imperial Japan’s militarism. Since assuming office, Abe declared his intention to restore the honour of his grandfather as well as other wartime veterans.

The Abe administration plans to change the portrayal of Japan’s colonial history by minimising the depiction of its military involvement in war crimes, especially on issues related to comfort women and labour conscriptions, as well as on smoothing over the territorial disputes with its neighboring countries. Abe also wants to downplay allegations that Japan’s military committed atrocities against its own people by ordering the mass suicides that took place during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

These troubled family histories have often haunted Park and Abe, who have been criticised by historians as well as by political opposition parties.

Today, a large number of scholars as well as the general citizenry in Korea and Japan feel distraught that their governments have taken biased approaches towards revising their histories. The revision of history textbooks has become a convenient method for both leaders to cover up their country’s troubled pasts.

A large number of scholars in both countries have openly opposed the alteration of history textbooks, feeling that their respective governments’ actions represent an unwarranted intrusion into academic and social life dictated by politics. There is no doubt that history textbooks, whether from the left or the right, might have their own biases, but political leaders have no place involving themselves in controversies over matters of history that should be best left to recognised scholars.

*Rahul Raj
Assistant Professor, School of Liberal Arts, Gyeongju University, Gyeongju, South Korea, and Adjunct Professor, Korean Studies, Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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