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[Speaking Out] Japan’s Education Ministry Should Be More Transparent in Screening Textbooks




On December 25, 2019, the Japanese Ministry of Education disapproved Jiyusha Publishing’s junior high school history textbook prepared by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform that I head.


In the past two decades, the ministry approved the textbook related to the Society five times. The latest disapproval apparently represents the Education Ministry officials’ unfair intentions to eliminate textbooks related to the Society that calls for the end of self-deprecating history education. 



Disapproval Action Against the Textbook Reform Society


In screening textbooks, the ministry builds on its own standards to check typographical errors and omissions, correct factual errors, and examine whether their contents are suitable for pupils or students to be taught. Requests for correction by the ministry are called “screening opinions.”



Several months after a publisher files an application for screening a textbook, the ministry may provide such opinions. Every textbook usually receives at least 100 opinions or so. Then, the publisher will negotiate with ministry officials in charge and submit a revised version of the textbook. If no additional screening opinion is provided, the revised textbook will be approved.


In the past, the ministry had offered compulsory “revision opinions” and non-compulsory “improvement opinions.” At present, however, it provides screening opinions alone.


For the latest screening, the ministry introduced other new standards. Under the standards, a publisher’s negotiations with officials in charge may be omitted if the average number of screening opinions exceed 1.2 per page. In such cases, the publisher may submit rebuttals to screening opinions within 20 days. If the average number slips below 1.2 due to officials’ acceptance of some rebuttals, a normal screening process may resume.


A total of 405 screening opinions were provided for the 314-page Jiyusha textbook, exceeding the limit of 376 representing the average number of 1.2 per page. Of the 405 opinions, 29 were for typographical errors and omissions and 59 for factual errors or inaccuracy. The remaining 292 were for passages that could be difficult for students to understand or could be misunderstood, according to the Education Ministry.



Subjective Screening by the Education Ministry


Most of the screening opinions were subjective, complaining that students may have difficulties in understanding or misunderstand some passages. And, what is worse still, most of the opinions were difficult for ordinary people to understand.



I would like to cite a couple of examples. A chronological table in the textbook notes that “the People’s Republic of China (communist regime) was established in 1949.” A screening opinion said that students could misunderstand the “communist regime” because the People’s Republic of China has a coalition government. Does not China have a de facto communist regime?


Another opinion came concerning a column on the Tiananmen Square incident, which shows the famous photo of a shirt-sleeve young man standing in front of advancing tanks to stop them with a caption that “a student confronting tanks of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army dispatched to crack down on pro-democracy movements.” The opinion says that the description of the man in the photo is too categorical and could be misunderstood by students.


Jiyusha presented rebuttals to 175 out of the 405 screening opinions. However, the ministry decided to reject all the rebuttals on December 25.


The decision represents the first Education Ministry scandal since an incident in 1986, where the ministry forced a senior high school history textbook to be revised even after approving it.


The textbook screening system should feature compulsory “revision opinions” and non-compulsory “improvement opinions” as in the past. The education ministry should also make public a screening process after any screening in order to enhance its transparency.




A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #659, on March 2, 2020.


Author: Katsuhiko Takaike

Katsuhiko Takaike is an attorney and Vice President of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.


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