Sunday, 19 April 2015

History education and a classroom anecdote

In a previous incarnation I used to be a history teacher, and as such stories about way that history is taught - or not taught - are close to my heart.

As I've already written,  here Disquiet about the current government's tendency towards historical revisionism has been growing among liberals* in Japan.  I've already written about this a few weeks ago.  The issue of history textbooks has been in the news: one textbook maker has removed all reference to the Nanjing massacre and almost all have adopted the government line that territorial dispute are not disputes, but Japan's territory. In addition the Meiji government now gave land to the disposed Ainu rather than taking it away. (Rather the same as if Aus. textbooks wrote of Australia bestowing land on Aboriginal people rather than dispossessing them...)
The topic of Japan and the war comes up in my classes a lot, partly because I teach Japanese history and Japanese society, but it also comes up in academic speaking in classes where most students will go overseas.  It seems a failure in duty of care to send students overseas with no knowledge of sensitive issues they may be asked about.

In class the other day, a number of students had written that they took the class because when they did homestay overseas they were asked question about Japan that they had no idea about. In class I asked them what kind of topics had left them flummoxed.  Invariably it they had been in the US and it was issues of military and government that had come up.

As the class progressed and we were going through the concept of society changing over time, and ideas of normal changing over time, I asked them about Japan's changing relations with foreign countries over time.  Only one student in the class identified China as the predominant influence on Japan if one considers all history, not just modern history.  Most students said the US (fair if modern history only is considered), many said the Netherlands.  All students could identify many Chinese cultural influences - art, architecture, food, tea, writing, language, but not rice, silk, Confucianism or  political influences (most notably the Taika reforms).  All students said they'd never though about the influence of China on Japan, even though they were aware of the influence.

From China, to the Portugeuse, to Sakoko (closed country) and Rangaku (study via the Dutch, to the Unequal Treaties was an easy progression. The leap to imperialism however was much more difficult. Furthermore  teikoku shugi - the word that translates as imperialism, does not really have a sense of aggressive land grabbing and raping and pillaging the population of occupied countries. (Certainly not unique to Japan.)

At this point a student asked if Japan and China had ever fought each other in a war....

Um.. yes...

To be fair to the student, she knew she should have known, and full credit to her that she had the courage and interest to ask. She also was knowledgeable about the revised interpretation of the constitution and knew it meant Japan was now more likely to go to war.  It's an odd combination that merits further investigation.  How can a student in Japan go through until the age of 20 not knowing Japan invaded China?  Part of it is the student, but to leave it at that I think misses a much bigger picture.

Some more detail on textbook changes:

* for any Americans, this is not intended as a pejorative.

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