TV & Radio
Japan downplays wartime suicides
By Hiroko Tabuchi
Published March 31, 2007
TOKYO -- The Japanese government ordered changes Friday to seven history textbooks describing how the Japanese army forced civilians to commit mass suicide at the end of World War II, the country's latest effort to soften brutal accounts of its wartime conduct.
The high school textbooks say the army -- faced with an impending U.S. invasion in 1945 -- handed out grenades to residents on the southern island of Okinawa and ordered them to kill themselves rather than surrender to the Americans.
The Education Ministry said there was no definitive evidence that the suicides were ordered by the army. The publishers were asked to modify the relevant passages and submit the changes for approval by a government-appointed panel.
"There are divergent views of whether or not the suicides were ordered by the army, and no proof to say either way. So it would be misleading to say the army was responsible," said Yumiko Tomimori, a ministry official.
Since taking office in September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promoted national pride and sought to distance Japan from its post-World War II guilt. His conservative government has bolstered Japan's international military role and amended the constitution to require schools to teach patriotism.
On Friday, Tokyo's education board said it had punished 35 teachers for not standing up to honor the national anthem -- seen by some as a symbol of Japan's military past -- during graduation ceremonies. Three of the teachers will be suspended for up to six months, 12 received pay cuts and 20 were given warnings.
The "Kimigayo" song was adopted as the national anthem in 1999, and four years later, Tokyo's conservative government ordered teachers to honor it during school ceremonies.
The battle in Okinawa raged from late March through June 1945, leaving more than 200,000 civilians and soldiers dead and speeding the collapse of Japan's defenses.
Accounts of forced group suicides on Okinawa have been backed up by historical research and testimony from victims' relatives. Historians say government propaganda led civilians to believe U.S. soldiers would commit atrocities, resulting in many killing themselves to avoid capture.
But in recent years, some academics have questioned whether the suicides were forced, part of the wider push by conservatives to soften criticism of Japan's wartime conduct.
Survivors of the battle criticized the revisions.
"If the [Japanese] soldiers hadn't come, people wouldn't have killed themselves," Fumiko Miyamura, a woman who said she witnessed a group suicide on Okinawa, told public broadcaster NHK. "Are they trying to make us forget about the war?"
Abe set off a storm earlier this month when he said there was no evidence that Japan's army forced women to work in military brothels during World War II. Historians estimate as many as 200,000 women, mostly Chinese and Korean, were forced into prostitution by the military.
Most textbooks approved Friday touched on Japan's wartime brothels but did not discuss whether the women were coerced or whether the Japanese military was involved, Kyodo News agency reported.
Abe's comments backtracked from a 1993 government admission that the Japanese military forced women into prostitution. On Monday, he tried to quell the backlash with an apology to the victims, but stopped short of acknowledging that thousands were forced into sexual slavery.
On Saturday, a private Japanese fund set up in 1995 to help "comfort women" will expire, wrapping up a mission seen as falling short of expectations.
The Asian Women's Fund was created to provide compensation and to heal wounds from Japan's often brutal expansion through the region during the war. But many victims rejected the aid because it neither came directly from the government nor was accompanied by an official apology.