Skip to main content

Teaching War Is Not Easy: Controversies in Japan, Germany, and the United States

By Laura Hein

This essay is drawn from a book I co-edited with Mark Selden that examines and compares controversies over textbook depictions of recent wars in Japan, Germany, and the United States, called Censoring History, just out from M.E. Sharpe. The content of Japanese textbooks is perennially controversial, but there is little direct comparison to textbooks in other places, so we wanted to look at this issue comparatively. We asked: what can we learn about nationalism, citizenship, and history, through attention to debates over textbooks, and specifically about debates on textbook coverage of WWII?

Schools and textbooks are one of the important ways that contemporary societies transmit ideas of citizenship, and both the idealized past and the promised future of the community. They tell us who is part of the important shared story and who isn't -- and which aspects of their life experiences are central to the national experience and which are not. Textbooks in most societies present an "official" story, highlighting narratives that shape contemporary patriotism.

We focus on two inter-related themes of nationalism that run through history lessons everywhere:

1. the relationship between citizens and the state, often centering on recognition (or denial) of ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences.
2. foreign relations, especially the conduct of one's own nation in war. History lessons not only model behavior for citizens within their own society, they also chronicle relations with others.
These two themes are closely tied together because depictions of the relationship between the citizen and the state always imply something about people who are beyond the borders of the state as well. Anything that binds us together as Americans, as opposed to members of the human race, must somehow also set us apart from non-Americans, for example.

Education, Citizenship, and War: What's at Stake?

Some subjects raise special difficulties by their very nature. Textbook authors and teachers face a daunting task when confronted with the history of a discredited war. When the subject is the Second World War in Japan or Germany, or the Vietnam War in the United States, it is impossible to discuss either the actions of citizens or the treatment of outsiders in ways that satisfy everyone.

The book focuses on:

1. Treatment of the Holocaust in German education.
2. Treatment of the system of institutionalized rape and military sexual slave labor established during the Asia-Pacific War and euphemistically called the "comfort woman" system in Japanese texts.
3. Two American cases: WWII internment of Japanese-Americans and U.S. conduct in the Vietnam War.
We examine a number of deeply divisive questions, cutting to the heart of ideas about nation and citizenship:

* Should the teacher defend the least objectionable goals of the wartime state while acknowledging the brutality with which those aims were carried out? Or should she condemn the nation's war goals and practices? And, if so, on what grounds? As an aggressive war? An imperialist war? A war that violated human rights? An irrational -- that is, an unwinnable -- war?
* Should teachers and texts stress changes since defeat, or focus on national continuities?
* How should she teach about dissent during the war?
* Was defeat and perhaps even military occupation by foreigners a blessing in disguise in that it stopped the nation from carrying out cruel and self-destructive actions?

Education itself becomes part of this debate. Teaching students to debate controversial issues and question basic premises implies a very different concept of citizens' rights and responsibilities than does memorization of a sacred text. Many educators in the United States, Germany, and Japan see the task of creating an informed and active citizenry through education as the bedrock of political democracy -- and in Germany and Japan, many educators blamed their educational systems for contributing to WWII by teaching them to blindly accept authority. So democratic education for them is itself a clear repudiation of the war. Ienaga Saburo, an author of Japan's very first postwar history text, has kept government censorship of textbooks on the public agenda for thirty-five years out of a commitment to precisely this vision of a democratically engaged citizenry.

What causes controversies? Controversies often develop when one domestic group feels belittled in some way by the national narrative -- its members find unacceptable the depiction (or lack of depiction) of people like themselves. Women and ethnic minorities have transformed nationalist narratives over the last fifty years in many parts of the globe, forcing new definitions of what it means to be a good citizen. In the book we use the concept of "social distance" to highlight these changes.

But controversies are also sometimes sparked by international events. While the primary audience for nationalist narratives in general and textbooks in particular is domestic, controversies repeatedly spill across national borders. They do so most often when the subject is an international event such as a war, or when it involves the treatment of racially, ethnically, or religiously distinctive social groups who live both within and beyond national borders. International controversies over textbook content signal competing models for nationhood and citizenship in the international community. Not surprisingly, controversies are most intense when international and domestic critics combine forces, as is the case in Japan today.

I would argue further that controversy is fundamentally a sign of conflict about the future. In other words, we should not necessarily assume that problems are greater where controversies are the most strident; rather, a high level of controversy is often a signal that visions of the future are in greater dispute. People argue about the past when it seems relevant to the future. Moreover, they are willing to confront and repudiate unpleasant and self-critical aspects of the past if it seems worth it to them in order to attain a goal they have set themselves for the future. They avoid doing so if they see no clear benefit to that uncomfortable task.

For the remainder of this essay, I will compare Germany, Japan, and the United States. To give my conclusions first, I think the official narrative of WWII has changed in important ways in all three countries, but there are important differences, too. Germans are far more willing to respond to international criticism about WWII than are either Japanese or Americans, although Japan has moved much farther in this regard than has the United States (for either WWII or the Vietnam War). In contrast, the American official story of the war has changed a great deal in regard to racial minorities within the United States, far more than either Japan or Germany. National and international pressures combine today to heighten controversy in Japan more than in Germany or the United States, although the relative calm in the United States is unlikely to last forever.

Germany's War and the Holocaust

The brutality of the Third Reich's program to exterminate Europe's Jews is the most difficult aspect of World War II for many Germans to confront. Since 1945 Germans have debated how to remember and teach their own actions during the war. At first, West Germans under Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor from 1949 to 1963, avoided reflection on the past by arguing that their still-fragile democracy could not withstand honest remembrance of the Nazi era. Discussion of the war in schools varied from state to state, but was nearly non-existent in some parts of Germany. Peter Schneider, a German novelist who grew up in Freiburg, recalled that his high school curriculum allocated more time to the Trojan War of Homer -- read in the original Greek -- than to the war that had ended only a decade earlier.

In the 1960s, that stance gave way to the belief that both democracy and justice required not only remembrance but also criticism of the German war. Germans then fought some of the same battles over remembering the past that Japanese grappled with in the 1990s. Since then, the West German state, in its education system and public commemoration, has collectively committed to a very self-critical stance about the Holocaust, including extensive Holocaust education programs. German teachers and textbooks now not only "reflect a consensus over the condemnation of the Nazi past," but also spend an unusually large amount of the school year discussing recent history.

One major reason for the shift in West German policy at that time was the feeling on the part of West German leaders that the key to Germany's future lay in full commitment to regional integration in what is now the European Union. Germans could not achieve their goal of integrating with Europe without repudiating the nationalist past and inventing a new "tamed" national identity. West (and now unified) Germany has adopted an internationalist narrative appropriate to that strategy, one that appears in government statements, public discourse, and the content and tone of textbooks. To put the same thing a different way, most Germans, notably political leaders, currently believe that teaching their children positive accounts of the war will cost them too much of something they desire -- European goodwill -- in the future.

In the realm of textbooks, German officials have participated with Polish ones in cross-national discussions sponsored by UNESCO aiming to develop mutually acceptable textbooks. They have also participated in programs to write common European Union textbooks. German education officials have been highly responsive to international criticism. For example, one curriculum on Hitler for high school students was re-written after the Israeli government protested that it was insufficiently critical of the Third Reich. German texts now sharply downplay nationalist in favor of internationalist themes. The point here is not so much the specific content but German responsiveness to Israeli concerns. (In fact, the U.S. Holocaust Museum changed its permanent exhibit in exactly the opposite direction. When the exhibit was first created, curators realized they needed to put more in about the Nazis to avoid giving the impression that Europe's Jews were killed by some unseen force. There is no right answer to how to present these issues.)

The history of the German Democratic Republic (East German) aproach to the war and Holocaust memory shows that the contrast between Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany is a political rather than a cultural one. East German leaders more closely resembled their Japanese counterparts than their counterparts in West Germany insofar as they preferred to focus on their (glorious socialist) future rather than on their culpability for the past. Indeed, East Germans did not see themselves as implicated in the Nazi past. Defining Nazi power as the result of monopoly capitalism, they saw themselves as representatives of the proletariat that had been oppressed by both capitalists and Nazis.

The East German state emphasized the fascism but not the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era until shortly before reunification. This view of the past was laid out quite explicitly in East German textbooks, which described the inmates of the concentration camps (accurately) as Communists, labor leaders, anti-fascists, and Russians -- but not as Jews. Moreover, Buchenwald was presented in East Germany as the site of "self-liberation," celebrating the takeover of the camp by a group of armed political prisoners prior to the entry of U.S. forces. Unification has meant, however, that East German interpretations of the war have been subsumed into West German ones.

Reframing the story of the past, including rewriting textbooks, also means changing the definition of the good German citizen and his/her relation to the state as well as to the European community. In Germany, the most sensitive lesson of the war does not concern the plight of Germany's victims so much as the complicity of the general population in their victimization. The question of complicity raises many painful questions:

* How central were atrocities to wartime society? How widespread was knowledge of the deportations and death camps?
* What responsibility did ordinary citizens bear for allowing or participating directly in persecution and mass death?
* And, most important, what lessons do the war and Holocaust teach for what people must do to safeguard a democratic future?

Educators in unified Germany have explicitly harnessed horror at the Holocaust to their lessons on contemporary German society, particularly in their celebration of multiculturalism. Most of the curricula on the Holocaust today is designed not only so that German students wil view the past from a victim's perspective but will also use that lesson to learn respect for religious and ethnic minorities within Germany today, without seeing them as threats to national unity. Hate crimes by Germans against Turkish, African, and Roma immigrants are perceived by victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike as vivid reminders of the Final Solution. German textbooks now celebrate ethnic diversity as crucial to German democracy and paint Neo-Nazis as the real danger to the German national future because they threaten to drag the nation back into the shameful past. Repudiation of the Holocaust has thus become a central pillar in the efforts of German educators to transform the meaning of citizenship into a multicultural enterprise within the narrative of the contemporary German nation.

Yet some Germans feel the texts do not go far enough. For example, Peter Schneider, writing on Holocaust remembrance in 1995, praised the schools for giving young Germans an awareness of the Holocaust they do not learn at home. But he ended his essay with a complaint that teenagers fail to learn the most crucial lesson of all: that refusal to obey did not always entail risking one¶s life. Some protests were successful. But most Germans avoid that knowedge. "Why?" Schneider asks. "The answer is obvious: Every person who resisted cast a shadow over the great majority of compliant and obedient men and women who didn't."

For Schneider, the Holocaust curriculum can never adequately prepare young Germans to take responsibility for peace and democracy in their own time unless it fully explores war complicity in the past rather than just sympathizing with victims.

Japan's War and the "Military Comfort Women"

Textbooks have been the site of bitter domestic and international controversy in Japan since the end of World War II. Most of the domestic battles have pitted government officials, who insisted that the Pacific War and the colonial era be portrayed in ways that flattered the wartime state, against Japanese citizens who seek to repudiate the war and distance postwar Japan from wartime values and actions. During the Occupation, Americans ordered the textbooks rewritten, but after 1982 the main overseas critics of Japanese texts have been Asians, who put diplomatic pressure on the government to change its descriptions of World War II.

In the 1990s, Japanese began discussing the war far more frankly than previously, including wide media coverage of such Asian grievances as the "military comfort women," the Nanjing Massacre, Chinese and Korean slave labor, and the grisly experiments of biowar Unit 731. In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and particularly after the December 1989 death of the Showa Emperor, Japanese produced stacks of testimony -- including books, documentary films, and archival research -- on previously suppressed or ignored aspects of the war. This is a huge change and one that is not fully appreciated in U.S. reporting on Japan. U.S. perceptions are a decade out of date.

One important reason for that reassessment in the 1990s was that Japanese began paying more attention to the Asian region after the end of the Cold War. However, the idea of an "Asian Union" is not nearly as appealing to Japanese leaders as is the European Union to German ones. There are huge practical obstacles to such an arrangement. Without clear incentives for regional reconciliation, many Japanese are reluctant to take on the domestic battles inherent in rethinking their World War II actions.

Nonetheless, the stance of Japanese government leaders also has changed significantly as a result of both domestic and international efforts, although their signals are mixed. On one hand, in the 1990s, several Prime Ministers apologized for Japan's war crimes; the government established a "private" fund to compensate former comfort women; and in 1996 Education Ministry officials approved brief mention of the military comfort women in junior high school social studies texts.

On the other hand, government leaders have hedged and prevaricated. The Japanese government explicitly rejected the UNESCO model of government-to-government negotiation over textbook content used by Germany and Poland, for example.

Current high school and middle school textbooks now contain information critical of the war and nearly all Japanese textbooks mention harsh colonial policies, the Nanjing Massacre, and the military comfort women. The discussion is typically elliptical, however. For example, one middle school text explains the Nanjing Massacre as follows:

The Japanese army on the Chinese continent occupied cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing, and Canton. When they occupied Nanjing, many Chinese people were massacred (the Nanjing Massacre Incident), but people in Japan were not informed.
Like the official commentary about them, the textbooks themselves seek an elusive middle ground that acknowledges the wartime past but avoids uncomfortable evaluation of it.

In 1997, domestic controversy over textbooks flared again when Fujioka Nobukatsu's edited four-volume book, Japanese History Not Taught in School Texts, was a bestseller. This controversy was unusual because it attacked the government from the right. Charging that current textbooks demean the nation, Fujioka and several colleagues organized into a group called Japanese Institute for Orthodox History Education and demanded more positive views of Japanese history and society, particularly with respect to World War II. The group wanted all criticism of official Japanese policy and actions cut from textbooks.

The movement can best be understood as a rearguard action against Japanese and international critics, who had forced the government to acknowledge culpability, apologize, and authorize significant changes in textbook accounts of the war. The Orthodox History Group hoped to influence public policy and debate by staunchly rejecting any need for official acknowledgment of Japanese wartime atrocities, let alone apologies or reparations.

The Orthodox History Group attempts to control the debate by discrediting Japanese who criticize any aspect of Japan's war. Their logic criminalizes dissent, much as did the presurrender state. They define discussion of World War II as permitting only two points of view: the "Tokyo Trials view of history," which blames Japan for all aspects of the Pacific War and glorifies the victor; and a "Japanese perspective" which takes pride in the nation and the Japanese state. The Group dismisses Japanese criticism of wartime policy and praxis as "self-flagellation" (jigyaku) -- that is, not just psychological sickness but treason. They reject the possibility that any Japanese could adopt an alternative perspective, for example, one based on humanist or internationalist principles. Their view of the proper relationship between citizen and state horrifies many of their fellow Japanese citizens.

The Orthodox History Group clearly also views some citizens as less valuable than others. It reserves special venom for textbook acknowledgment of the "comfort woman" system. Until the 1990s, it was possible to maintain official silence on this subject. That position has steadily eroded since the first few elderly Koreans and Filipinas bravely came forward in 1991 and 1992 to testify about their personal experiences as slaves. Japanese researchers then unearthed official documentation showing direct involvement of the state. Step by step, the Japanese government has been forced to acknowledge that the wartime state and the military were the chief architects of the women's misery. Critics sympathetic to the comfort women have censured the new textbook descriptions as inadequate for their failure to discuss, still less condemn, the system. But the Orthodox History Group decried these modest mentions of the comfort women as a dangerous blow to Japan's moral and political foundations.

I think the Orthodox History Group is right to treat discussion of the military comfort women as a crucial issue in defining Japanese nationalism and citizenship. This sordid story is central to current controversies because the treatment of these women, if actually discussed in classroom and society, forces citizens of all ages to reexamine their own relationship to the state, gender relations among citizens, and relations between Japan and Asia. It falsifies precisely the assumptions that the Orthodox History Group strives to protect: the identity of interests between Japanese citizens and the state (both in the 1940s and since) and the claim that there is nothing to criticize in wartime Japan's treatment of others. Most of all, it challenges Japanese to think about the relationship between the worst aspects of the war and larger wartime society.

The story of the comfort women spotlights the ugliest aspects of Japanese colonialism and racism. Japanese military planners saw Koreans, who may have accounted for 80% of the comfort women, as ideal candidates for sexual slavery precisely because they thought of them as both half-assimilated and racially inferior. This remains a tense issue in part because Korean residents in Japan are still Japan's largest minority group. It also undermines the nationalist claim that the interests of the state are identical with those of its citizens, notably Japan's female citizens. The Orthodox History Group argues, in startlingly contemptuous language, the now abandoned Japanese government position that the comfort women were ordinary licensed prostitutes who were paid for their services, just like prostitutes serving other armies.

The group also makes excuses for the rigid gender hierarchy and sexual double standard of prewar Japan. Large numbers of prewar Japanese women were sold into sexual servitude by their impoverished families, and those transactions were enforced by state power. Their working conditions were frequently based on coercion, debt-peonage, stigmatization, wretched physical circumstances, and the general social and legal assumption that sexual servitude was both a natural and appropriate service that women owe men and the nation. War and racism meant that Asian comfort women endured even more onerous conditions than Japanese prostitutes; but their plight also draws attention to gender as a fundamental hierarchy of prewar state and society, not just to its ugliest wartime incarnation.

Finally, official acknowledgment of the military comfort women in texts ratifies the huge social transformation of Japanese society since 1945 and the imaginative distance Japanese have already traveled from the assumptions many took for granted during the war. Coming to terms with that transformation is at the heart of the current Japanese controversy.

Japanese-American Internment in World War II and the Vietnam War

Americans too, under pressure from minorities and women, have modified their World War II victory stories to recognize the contributions of domestic groups largely omitted from earlier heroic narratives. This process has been controversial and is not necessarily resolved, although the trend is clear. One of the major sites of those battles for remembering the past was textbook content. In recent decades, textbooks have changed a great deal. Recent American textbooks, for example, are careful to recognize the wartime contributions of African-Americans under conditions of racial segregation and of women both in the military and in war industries.

One of the most dramatic changes in American textbooks is in their depictions of the internment by the U.S. government of the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast. Early postwar textbooks presented internment as a military necessity conducted without bloodshed. They were oblivious to the fact that two-thirds of the internees were U.S. citizens who were deprived of their constitutional rights. As one influential 1949 text concluded,

The civil liberties record was one of which every American can be proud. There was no hysteria, no persecution of dissenters....The presence on the Pacific coast of some 100,000 Japanese posed a special problem. Because, in the emergency after Pearl Harbor, the army could not take time to investigate every Japanese, it worked out instead a rough-and-ready solution . . . relocation camps.

Three decades later, the racism and the uncritical acceptance of military-driven national policy exemplified by that passage were no longer acceptable. In the 1970s and 1980s, the leading high school texts described the internment as "shameful," "tragic," "war hysteria," "a grave injustice," and "disgraceful."

The changes clearly originated with demands by Japanese-Americans that their incarceration be understood as a transgression of constitutional rights and a racist act. That stance challenged other Americans to reflect on their own wartime complicity in depriving Japanese-Americans of their land and liberty and, more generally, on their own racism. Japanese-Americans framed their challenge as a plea for a common stake in a more democratic and multicultural American future.

A sea change also occurred in American public opinion on the subject. It is not clear whether the new perspective in textbooks led to the changes in public opinion or the reverse, but the shift to a new consensus in the textbooks definitely preceded the change in official U.S. policy in 1987, when the government apologized for the internment and began offering financial restitution. Most textbooks and many teachers now see their educational responsibility as affirming the ideals of just and equitable treatment of citizens and condemning racism rather than defending this particular government action. They believe that emphasizing the social distance traveled by Americans since the war is an important lesson to help their students negotiate the multicultural American future.

It is interesting in this connection to note the success of the recent film Snow Falling on Cedars, based on a best-selling novel depicting this shameful chapter in American history. In a small Pacific Northwest town, Japanese Americans work as fishermen and shepherds, farmers and small-business holders; but when WWII breaks out, they are ordered from their homes by local authorities, told to take no more than will fit in a suitcase, and driven away to the internment "centers." This critical look at their internment in popular culture follows the changes of American history textbooks over the last twenty years.

The Vietnam War, in contrast, continues to be treated very gingerly in American textbooks. As with all of America's twentieth century wars, the United States has not yet had to respond to sustained foreign criticism, even though American conduct there was bitterly criticized at the time -- not just by Vietnam but also by some of America's principal European allies. Many Japanese citizens also protested both the war and their government's support of it. Yet there has been no sustained international debate since then on either U.S. conduct of the war or the terms of the postwar settlement, such as apology and compensation.

Likewise, neither Vietnamese nor other foreigners have effectively protested American textbook depictions of the Vietnam War. Few American school texts assessed the consequences of the war for the Vietnamese people. Nearly all school texts skirt the issues that are most sensitive for Americans, such as the My Lai massacre, the tiger cages, the devastating bombing campaigns, and the environmental destruction of much of North and South Vietnam. More fundamentally, they avoid facing the issue of the relationship between the worst aspects of the war and broader society: were war crimes fundamental to the logic of the Vietnam War?

Moreover, while the central concern in high school texts is the domestic American implications of the conflict, the attitudes and policies that divided Americans during the Vietnam War are rarely spelled out in these accounts. Most textbook treatments of the war seek to avoid all controversy -- which not only makes it hard to discuss important issues but also fails to convey why the Vietnam War mattered so deeply to Americans at the time. For example, few of the texts assess the U.S. antiwar movement, leaving the impression that the war was controversial without explaining how. This also makes the texts very boring!

During the Vietnam War, Americans fought over precisely the same issues of racism, justice, and the responsibility of citizens in a democracy that are at the heart of the German debate on the Holocaust. The antiwar movement challenged official interpretations of the American democratic tradition, arguing that principled resistance to unjust laws and politics is the touchstone of American democracy and responsible citizenship. The American "winter soldiers" carried that logic farthest. Their testimony to American war crimes was meant as an act of patriotism and courage -- precisely the kind of resistance that Peter Schneider lamented has been excised from German textbook accounts of World War II. The winter soldiers eloquently argued that in treating the Vietnamese inhumanely, Americans debased their own nation's finest traditions.

In contrast with Japan, where large and well-organized domestic groups pressure the government to repudiate its discredited war, and to Germany, where the war and the Holocaust are routinely criticized, few Americans today insist that reevaluation of the American war in Vietnam is crucial for a democratic future. There is nothing in U.S. high school texts on the Vietnam War that is as potentially challenging to celebratory narratives as is mention of the military comfort women in Japanese texts.

Teachers and texts avoid criticism of the Vietnam War even though public opinion polls consistently show that two-thirds of adult Americans think the Vietnam War was both morally wrong and poorly conducted. Ironically, criticism of the Vietnam War in American schools is taboo despite the fact that such criticism would reflect the opinion of a majority of Americans.

The contrast to contemporary practice in teaching about the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans is striking. I think the reason is that there is now so little support for the once-dominant view that the Japanese-Americans should all be locked up that this subject is easier to negotiate than the many unresolved legacies of the Vietnam War. The great shift in public opinion itself means that the newer textbooks can present internment as an exceptional error rather than a symptom of a racist polity. The implicit national narrative tells the story of Japanese-Americans

Related Program

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more