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A Mixed Victory for History

It took 32 years, but Ienaga Saburo finally won his court case. Sort of.

On Friday, September 26, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that the Ministry of Education acted illegally in 1980 and 1983 when it censored a description of Japan's World War II biological experiments from a high school textbook that Ienaga was writing. The Court ordered the Ministry to pay the historian $3,360 in damages.

The story began in the early 1960s, when Ienaga, considered by some a leftist radical, and by some a daring truth-seeker, finished a high school Japanese history school textbook which contained details of Japan's misdeeds during the war. His text included a description of the infamous Unit 731, which conducted medical experiments on Chinese prisoners of war similar to Nazi experiments. Prisoners were subject to typhoid and other various diseases, extreme cold or heat, dissection without anesthesia, and all sorts of other tortures. The Japanese government has never acknowledged it conducted the experiments, and at one point, a lower court ruled there was not enough evidence to prove Unit 731 actually existed.

The Ministry of Education, which since the war has had complete authority over the list of textbooks from which teachers can choose, decided to censor Ienaga's descriptions. The Ministry, in accordance with legal statute, simply removed the sections it found "unacceptable," and allowed the remainder to be published for high school teaching. Ienaga filed suit in 1965, questioning the constitutionality of the screening system.

The Ministry's reason for censoring Ienaga's descriptions was cited as "lack of evidence." But evidence abounded, and Ienaga wrote prolifically about it, publishing several books (that were not intended for the public education system, and thus not under threat of censorship) detailing his evidence, mostly in the form of cross-corroborating first person accounts.

In fact, Ienaga's evidence was strong enough to be a major factor in forcing the Japanese government to admit to, and apologize for, its past. The first Prime Minister to apologize for the misdeeds of the war was Hosokawa Morihiro in 1993, but this apology was seen as too little (it was a bit weak and vague), too late (48 years after the war). The current Prime Minister, Hashimoto Ryutaro, has since apologized in more forceful terms, but many activist and survivors' groups are demanding not just words of contrition, but monetary compensation. The government, although it has reached settlements with several former "comfort women" (a euphemism for "sex slave"), is unwilling to pay too readily, from the dubious fear of facing a raft of false accusations.

The Japanese sensitivity about the past is partially caused by pressure from radical right-wing groups, vocal and steadfast in the view that Japan has nothing for which to apologize. These extremists, usually limited to spouting ideology on street corners from trucks with loudspeakers, have in the past actually assassinated government officials advocating compensation. Such occurrences have been exceedingly rare, but their shadow looms over any politician considering apology as policy.

But more important than the pressure of right wing groups is general public opinion. While virtually all Japanese feel that Japan was the aggressor, and morally wrong, not to mention culpable, in WWII, nobody really wants to hear it. Like American whites today confronted with accusations of slavery, many Japanese feel that the war was long ago, and not of their generation. Few Japanese alive today remember the war, much less were of an age that they would bear any responsibility. A person turning 70 years old this year was just 18 when the war ended, 13 during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and 4 years old during the initial invasion of China. It would be a stretch to assign responsibility for ordering large-scale war crimes to an 18-year-old, even if that young soldier did partake in the crimes. Thus, many Japanese feel that the war, although terrible, is part of their past now.

And in 10 or 15 years, all the individuals who do remember the war will likely be gone, along with any first-person accounts of the war from the Japanese side. All that will remain then of this terrible history are the accounts of the survivors (and perpetrators) retold in Ienaga's work - thus its manifest importance.

His books for the general public are in no danger of being censored. Japan has a free and active press, and a raft of publishing houses willing to publish anything Ienaga writes. The question addressed by the Court is not whether the truth can be told, but to whom it will be. The case in question centered on textbooks for schoolchildren, who may not study history in depth after they leave school. Ienaga argues that it is vital for schoolchildren to know of Japanese atrocities from an early age, and for them to grow up with the worst in mind, in order to strive to prevent it from happening again.

Although it ordered damages paid to Ienaga, the Court's opinion was mixed. The disputed section on the experiments of Unit 731 has been restored to Ienaga's textbook, and it can be taught in high schools. However, the justices dismissed or rejected claims by Ienaga that seven other portions of his book had been illegally censored, including one section about Japanese soldiers who raped Chinese women during World War II.

Right after the ruling, Ienaga said "Today's ruling was not a complete victory, but one more case of screening has been judged illegal. .... In other words, the Supreme Court has admitted that textbook screening is illegal." This opinion wasn't a wholly accurate assessment of the verdict. The court unanimously upheld the Ministry's right to keep screening all textbooks before they are used, and further upheld the Ministry's right to remove anything it finds objectionable. But the judges ordered the ministry to censor schoolbooks "as little as possible" so they are not distorted by each government's political outlook.

What is "censoring as little as possible"? What is a "political distortion" of the truth? When does evidence become history? As far as students are involved, the Japanese Supreme Court has left these questions for the Ministry of Education to decide.

The 83-year-old Ienaga has probably fought his last battle to make sure that no government agency has jurisdiction over the truth. He fought it well.

News stories about the ruling can be found on the web pages for CNN and Suite101 article index | Writing index | Front page