Champion of truth

Japan's Past, Japan's Future: One Historian's Odyssey

by Ienaga Saburo

By Victor Fic

Periodically, the ship of stability in East Asia is buffeted by a typhoon of right-wing revisionism blowing out of Japan. The latest storm broke with recent reports that the Japanese Ministry of Education's school textbooks for 2002 would again omit or downplay Japan's aggression during World War II. South Korea, for one, which pledged a new relationship with its former colonial overlord in 1998, has threatened to scale down parliamentary and youth exchanges.

Within Japan, gifted historian Saburo Ienaga stands out for trying to dissipate such ultra-conservative tempests. In this inspiring autobiography, Ienaga recounts how he sued the Ministry of Education between 1965 and 1997, hoping to end its certification system for history textbooks. Ienaga argued that the system permitted the state to issue distorted works, compromising the freedom of thought necessary to safeguard peace and democracy.

Ienaga was born in 1913, and little in his early life prepared him to be a fighter. The boy suffered from many painful ailments, and remains so easily exhausted by work that even now recovery takes all his time. His military officer father lost his post for speaking candidly to superiors, but Ienaga does not indicate that this influenced his convictions.

He recollects that when he was a boy, he deeply loved "a field with its milk vetch in bloom". On his deathbed, it will be "the most beautiful memory of my life". Without this uncommonly personal passage, Ienaga would have been merely respectable, but now he becomes likable.

When he was a youth in the 1930s, many of his friends embraced fascism. Ienaga rejected it, not due to his courage, but because of his intellectual "stodginess"; he honored the neo-Kantianism liberalism of the 1920s.

Though admitting that he supported the emperor system when young, Ienaga insists that he was a moderate. Unfortunately, he does not state just when he explicitly rejected the throne, a failing in his narrative.

As for World War II itself, Ienaga depicts himself as one of many "spineless characters" who remained silent as Japan murdered Asia. This is an accurate indictment; excuses would only compromise his latter claim to be a champion of truth.

After the war, Ienaga viewed the mass chanting for democracy as a new herd mentality. He only became politically involved when a progressive textbook he penned was rejected during certification in 1953. He finally filed suit in 1965 against the Education Ministry, and displayed the rare conviction to fight until 1997.

His motives included feeling guilty over his silence during the war. However, Ienaga also correctly saw how the deeply reactionary Education Ministry - many former wartime leaders had returned to power by now - wanted to assault the "sacred" ground of the free mind that underpinned true democracy.

While filing three suits in all, he attracted the support of hundreds of Japanese scholars, though little aid from an apathetic public. Significantly, Ienaga does not mention whether any Western Japan experts provided him with concrete help. Is this an oversight, or an indication that his foreign colleagues have opined more than assisted? Ienaga also drew the attention of the powerful right wing. Its thugs threatened him outside the courtroom and elsewhere; even now they are a sinister force in Japan.

The long court cases are complex. When the Supreme Court handed down its final judgment in 1997, it ruled that the Education Ministry could screen books, but insisted that the censors had wrongly deleted passages on some war crimes. Ienaga sees his efforts as half-victories legally, but full victories spiritually.

This book proves that Ienaga is a world-class champion of democratic integrity combating oppressive conformity. He is in the same camp - though on a lesser scale - as Andrei Sakharov and other opponents of the Orwellian control state. His admirers are nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Although the latest reports hold that the Japanese Education Ministry, bowing to foreign pressure, will issue somewhat more honest books, its soulless mandarins are unlikely to desist. Ienaga is 83, and his battle is not over. Now, Asia and the world will be watching to see whether Japan's intellectuals - unassisted by a detached public - can produce a successor with Ienaga's fortitude for speaking truth to power.

(Ienaga Saburo's Japan's Past, Japan's Future: One Historian's Odyssey, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, London, 2001.)

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Aug 3, 2002


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