[Speaking Out] Japanese Ministry of Education should be more transparent in screening textbooks


On December 25, 2019, the Japanese Ministry of Education disapproved of the Jiyusha Publishing Middle School history textbook prepared by the Japan Society for the Reform of History Textbooks that I lead.

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Over the past two decades, the ministry has approved the Society Manual five times. The latest disapproval apparently represents the unfair intentions of Department of Education officials to eliminate Society-related textbooks calling for an end to teaching history self-deprecation.

Disapproval action against the textbook reform company

When selecting textbooks, the ministry uses its own standards to check for typographical errors and omissions, correct factual errors, and consider whether their content is suitable for the pupils or students to be taught. Requests for correction by the ministry are called “prequalification notices”.

Several months after a publisher has applied for the selection of a textbook, the ministry may provide such advice. Each manual usually receives at least 100 or more opinions. Then the publisher will negotiate with ministry officials and submit a revised version of the manual. If no further selection notice is provided, the revised manual will be approved.

In the past, the ministry had proposed mandatory “review notices” and non-mandatory “improvement notices”. At present, however, it only provides testing advisories.

For the latest screening, the ministry introduced other new standards. Under the standards, a publisher’s negotiations with maintainers can be bypassed if the average number of selection notices exceeds 1.2 per page. In such cases, the publisher may submit rebuttals to the prequalification notices within 20 days. If the average number drops below 1.2 due to officials accepting certain rebuttals, a normal selection process may resume.

A total of 405 selection notices were provided for the 314-page Jiyusha manual, 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 inaccuracies. The remaining 292 were for passages that might be difficult for students to understand or could be misunderstood, according to the Education Department.

Subjective screening by the Ministry of Education

Most of the selection opinions were subjective, complaining that students may have difficulty understanding or misunderstanding certain passages. And, worse yet, most opinions were difficult for ordinary people to understand.

I would like to cite a few examples. A timeline in the textbook notes that “the People’s Republic of China (Communist Regime) was established in 1949.” A selection notice stated that students might misunderstand “Communist Regime” because the People’s Republic of China has a coalition government. Doesn’t China have a de facto communist regime?

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

Jiyusha refuted 175 of the 405 selection opinions. However, the ministry decided to reject all rebuttals on December 25.

The move represents the education ministry’s first scandal since an incident in 1986, where the ministry forced a review of a high school history textbook even after approving it.

The textbook selection system should include mandatory “revision notices” and non-mandatory “improvement notices” as in the past. The Ministry of Education should also make public a selection process after any selection in order to improve its transparency.

A version of this article was first published by the Japanese Institute of National Fundamentals, Speak # 659, March 2, 2020.

Author: Katsuhiko Takaike

Katsuhiko Takaike is a lawyer and vice-president of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.


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