Textbooks that Japan’s elementary school students will use from next year contain distorted information about Korean and Japanese history.
The government-approved textbooks apparently water down the coercive nature of Japan’s wartime wrongdoings and strengthen its sovereignty claim to South Korea's Dokdo islets, among other things.
Historical distortions in textbooks has been getting worse, with Japan increasing ambiguous expressions and unfounded arguments to avoid admitting responsibility for the forced mobilization of Koreans during its colonial occupation of Korea.
It is an undeniable historical fact that Japan forcibly mobilized young Koreans as student soldiers during World War II when Korea was under Japan’s colonial rule. A current Japanese textbook says they were conscripted but its new edition says they “participated” in the Japanese military. This gives an impression that Koreans joined the Japanese military voluntarily.
In 2021, the Japanese government said that such expressions as forced mobilization and forced labor are inappropriate. Last year, “forcibly mobilized” was replaced with just “mobilized” in high school textbooks.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi recently reaffirmed that the expression “forcibly" mobilized is not appropriate. But it is a solid fact that they were forced into hard labor in poor working conditions at coal mines, construction sites and factories.
The government in Seoul expressed deep regret. This is not the first time for Japan to distort history and for Korea to protest. But this time, the disinformation is all the more regrettable because it came to light less than two weeks after President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed in their recent summit to restore Korea-Japan relations.
Yoon made the first move to revive the relations. His administration proposed to compensate Koreans mobilized by Japan into wartime hard labor. It was a difficult decision. The bilateral relations were stalled over the South Korean Supreme Court’s order to Japanese firms to compensate Koreans for their forced labor and the firms’ refusal to follow the order.
To break the diplomatic stalemate, Yoon risked strong backlash at home to propose a bold solution and vowed to normalize Korea-Japan relations. He visited Japan for the first bilateral summit in 12 years.
His visit raised expectations that Japan would reciprocate. But history distortions in the textbooks can throw a wet blanket on such expectations and Yoon’s fence-mending efforts.
Regarding Yoon’s proposal on the forced labor compensation issue, Kishida said that he would inherit the historical awareness of past cabinets. His remark fell short of South Koreans’ expectations, though it is understood that the history awareness includes the South Korea-Japan joint declaration of 1998 adopted by Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.
In the declaration, Obuchi acknowledged the “tremendous damage and suffering to the Korean people during Japan’s colonial rule” and expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology.”
The newly approved textbooks are said to have been authored in accordance with government guidelines established in April 2021 when Korea-Japan relations were at their worst. Even if so, historical distortions, particularly those on the Dokdo issue, are unacceptable. The new textbooks describe Dokdo as Tokyo’s “indigenous” territory and add the word “illegal” to South Korea’s occupation of the islets.
Trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan is essential to respond to security threats from North Korea and China. For this, improvement of relations with Japan are needed. But this does not mean concessions over historical facts and territory.
The South Korean government must try to keep the initiative in security and economic cooperation, while strongly demanding corrective measures from Japan.
Tokyo must bear in mind that future-oriented relations it says it desires are possible when children, next leaders of their country, are taught historical facts as they are. History distortion will go down as another shameful history.