TIME TO LEARN FROM WARTIME GRADE SCHOOL HISTORY TEXTBOOK
I recently read an engaging reprint of a wartime Japanese elementary school history textbook—Reprinted Edition: Japanese History for Elementary School Students. (Heart Publishing Co., Tokyo; October 2019). It was a gift from critic Kotaro Miura, who edited the reprint (hereafter, Japanese History). Miura is the author of Why Hideoshi Expelled the Jesuits (Heart Publishing Co.; January 2019).
Japanese History is a compilation of a two-volume textbook—Book I aimed at fifth graders and Book II at sixth graders—based on a prewar textbook. Japanese History was first used in 1943 to teach elementary school students history two hours a week under a new “national” elementary school system.
In the postscript, Miura notes that the new system, which replaced the prewar “regular” elementary school system, was enacted in March 1941, three months after the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. Japanese History was based on History of Japan for National Elementary Schools originally published in 1903.
I presume that students must have started using the new textbook from April 1943, when the new school year started in Japan. Having been compiled in the midst of Japan’s Greater East Asia War, however, the new textbook was subsequently removed from the field of education following Japan’s devastating defeat and the start of the seven-year American Occupation of Japan.
How timely it is that Japanese History saw the light of day in a reprint in the first year of Reiwa more than 70 years later. With the international situation undergoing a sea change, Japan will not be able to survive unless we exert ourselves to the best of our ability to utilize our indigenous national power. What counts at this juncture is the mental attitude of individual Japanese as we face up to the new challenges.
Many people say “the Japanese people of the past were mentally strong.” If so, one must first cite the Japanese family as the main contributing factor, with Japanese parents rearing their children with discipline and love. Until around the end of the war, parents were the role models for children. Our children entered “regular” or “national” elemenary schools after having been well trained in basic Japanese manners at home. And these children were taught the history of their nation through Japanese History.
Opening the first page of Japanese History, an unspeakable sense of nostalgia filled my heart. Its every description of the historical events and happenings that contributed to the history of Japan made me sense the profound sentiments of the original authors, who employed benevolent expressions with a courteous use of Japanese and elegant depictions of each phase of our history and old tales, while demonstrating their humble thanks and simple adoration for his beloved motherland.
I wondered what made me feel so nostalgic about this textbook, and it dawned on me after a while: I was actually sensing the presence of my own mother here and there in Japanese History.
My mother passed away last year at 104. God gave me a precious twelve and a half years to spend with her, caring for her since she first fell ill. Before and even after being taken ill, she was always gentle and sincere—a truly respectable Japanese woman. But I have no doubt that there was nothing special about her upbringing; she was just one of the average Japanese women of her era.
It is a fact that during her lifetime, most Japanese lived far more simply, humbly, modestly, and lovingly, aware of their respective roles in life.
Twisted View of History
Mother belonged to the prewar “regular” elementary school generation, but I am sure many common denominators linked her with the “national” elementary school generation in terms of what she learned at school. By reviewing the textbooks the children of the older generation read at school, I feel we are able to come across the fine traditional Japanese values that the older generation practiced. These are the values that contemporary Japanese sorely lack in coping with the new challenges facing Japan.
Most of today’s school history textbooks are not fun to read. Not only that, they are filled with negative and sinister descriptions of our heritage and history, making one develop a dislike and a disrespect of Japan the more one reads them. These history textbooks predominantly depict imperial Japan as having behaved badly overseas, especially in China and Korea, while oppressing its people at home. Many paint a dark and negative picture of wartime Japan, depicting its people as having continued to suffer and agonize under ruthless oppression.
In point of fact, the reality of our history is in sharp contrast to the dark and negative images projected by these liberal textbooks. I feel strongly that our history has generally been marked by the beauty of the land, the magnanimity of the people, and the relative affluence of the nation under the reign of a benevolent line of emperors. How does anyone explain how in a land where people supposedly have been oppressed and exploited over the centuries the world-class literature and travelogues of the Heian Era (794-1192), such as The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, could have flourished? Under what circumstances was the Man-yo-shu born, the eighth century anthology of poetry to which a cross-section of Japanese from the emperor down contributed?
Japanese History is the opposite of the contemporary textbooks that project a twisted view of Japanese history. As regards the mythical origin of Japan under Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of the Shinto religion who laid the foundation of Japan, it explains:
“The great deity Amaterasu was in Takamagahara (where the heavenly gods lived), teaching them how to grow five crops, such as rice and wheat, rear silkworms, spin yarn, and weave cloth. Peaceful days lasted throughout the year in Heaven, with reeds on weaving looms making a peaceful sound in spring, and the ears of ripe rice swaying like golden waves in autumn.”
From the quiet and peaceful world of Heaven, Amaterasu one day sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, down to the peak of Mount Takachiho in southern Kyushu. In 660 BC, Ninigi’s great-grandson, Jinmu, ascended to the throne at Kashihara Shrine in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, as the first emperor of Japan. Japanese History chronicles how emperors from Jinmu down made earnest efforts to solidify the foundation of Japan, heartily loving and caring for the people. As the textbook explains:
“Each emperor loved and cared for the people as his own children. And the people revered the emperors as their parents. As peace prevailed, Japanese national power grew by leaps and bounds, like young bamboo trees after the rain.”
The 16th emperor, Nintoku who reigned 313-399, is famous for benevolent rule. According to the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters; 712) and the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan; 720), when Nintoku noticed that no smoke from cooking was coming out of the house furnaces of villagers on New Year’s Day, he exempted them from taxes for three years. Nintoku viewed himself as one with the villagers.
Ties between Emperor and People
It was only natural for Nintoku to have readily shared in the economic hardships of his people. To be frugal, he did not have the walls of his palace repaired when they collapsed. Nor did he care when the wind and rain blew into his living quarters through a broken roof. Three years later, he happy witnessed ribbons of smoke rising again from the villagers’ kitchen chimneys. As Japanese History describes the scene:
“This time, wisps of smoke enveloped the entire village like morning and evening mist. Emperor Nintoku could not have been happier as he graciously remarked, ‘This makes me feel better already.’”
What a graceful expression of emotion to describe the rise of the chimney smoke as “like morning and evening mist.” There could be no more impactful way to teach fifth and sixth graders history than through such delicate Japanese expressions.
Nintoku said he felt “better already” because he regarded the people’s affluence as his own. These are the words that must have convinced the people that he would always be with them. I wish to point out further that such ties are intact today between Reiwa Emperor Naruhito and a majority of contemporary Japanese. To borrow Miura’s expression, Japanese History plays a valuable role in linking the people of other days with those of today.
In the same way famed historian Kurakichi Shiratori (1865-1942) wrote The History of Japan as a personal textbook for Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) in his teens, Japanese History tackles Japanese history centering around successive emperors. I would strongly recommend these two old textbooks for ambitious young Japanese overseas who wish to maintain traditional values against the strong pull of today’s globalization.
If we lose our Japanese values in the cut-throat international arena, we will likely follow the path of defeat. Only by resorting to our innate sensitivity and traditional values, which we must safeguard and enhance at all costs at all times, can we possibly avoid defeat or destruction. We may not score a clear-cut victory, but we will at least be able to hold off defeat if we try hard enough. Who knows we may ultimately even score a victory, depending on how we play our cards.
In the interest of a better understanding of Japanese history, Miura summarizes legendary historian Kiyoshi Hiraizumi (1899-1984) as follows: all of the major past political reforms—the Taika Reforms (645); the Kenmu Restoration (1333); and the Meiji Restoration (1868)—trace their driving force back to the origins of Japan. The basic spirit that have spurred these historical reforms has been the commitment of the people to bringing Japan back to what it traditionally stood for.
In light of the increasingly confusing and turbulent international situation, Japan must resort to every possible means of enhancing its position. Learning our history correctly is precisely the first step we should take. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 874 in the October 31, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)