HM - Dec. 2015 - Sekiguchi
Partners in History
Using International Textbooks to Teach About
Perspective, Bias and Historical Memory
By Rylan Sekiguchi
SPICE, Stanford University
Summary: Stanford’s “Divided Memories” project compares history textbooks from China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. Students grapple with the source texts and engage in issues of perspective, bias, media literacy, historiography, and the politics of history education. An abridged lesson plan appears in the companion article “Divided Memories: Classroom Exercises.”
“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” —William Faulkner
We study history, many say, to learn from history’s mistakes. Our decisions today are informed by the lessons of yesterday. But what happens when our memories of yesterday are divided—that is, when our interpretations of history differ?
History textbooks provide society with an opportunity to endorse and propagate a “correct” version of history and to build a shared historical memory among its populace. This can be a powerful and consequential ability. As such, debates over how history is taught in schools have at times become extremely controversial and political. School textbooks in particular have become arguably one of the most politically scrutinized—and sometimes controlled—components of modern education.
In few places are these issues more contentious than in East Asia. Historical memory remains a recurring source of national and international disputes and, at times, extreme acrimony in the region. Such controversies are familiar to even the casual Asia-watcher.
Many disputes revolve around Japanese textbooks’ treatment of the World War II era. Critics see certain Japanese textbooks as evidence of growing Japanese nationalism and the country’s failure to assume proper responsibility for its wartime deeds. Defenders respond that the most controversial textbooks represent just a tiny fraction of all textbooks in use, and that the widely used textbooks adequately address the World War II era.
But it is not just a Japanese issue. Textbooks elsewhere in East Asia have attracted heated controversy, too. In the past few years alone, domestic textbook issues have sparked massive street protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. The ardor of these controversies over historical memory suggests that the past is, indeed, far from dead.
Stanford’s “Divided Memories” Research Project
The “Divided Memories and Reconciliation” project was begun at Stanford University in 2007 to compare the most prevalently used historytextbooks from five Pacific Rim societies: China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. How do these textbooks treat sensitive episodes in twentieth-century history? Do they present similar or dissimilar interpretations of history? Is there wide agreement on historical facts, or are there many contradictory claims? Scholars from the five target societies examined 19 different textbooks to explore these questions. Their goal was to better understand how wartime historical memory is being shaped today—not only in Japan (the most frequent subject of East Asia’s textbook controversies), but in the other four societies as well.
The project’s findings—along with translated and reprinted excerpts from the 19 textbooks—are published in the academic book History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia. My organization, the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), collaborated to produce a companion curriculum unit for classroom use.
Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers generally did not find disagreement among the textbooks on historical facts (with some notable exceptions). However, they did find sharp contrasts in how those facts were presented, including which facts were emphasized or omitted and how those facts were incorporated into an overarching historical narrative.
For example, compare the three passages on Nanjing below, each excerpted from a different textbook—American, Japanese, or Chinese. Can you guess the country of origin for each textbook excerpt? (For the correct answers, click here.)
The crimes committed by Japanese troops in the areas they occupied were so many that they could never be recorded completely. Japanese troops carried out barbarian slaughters in occupied areas. In December 1937, after the invading Japanese troops occupied the Chinese capital of Nanjing, they carried out a well organized and planned six-week-long slaughter of innocent residents and Chinese troops who had already put aside their weapons. The victims numbered more than 300,000.
The Japanese Army continued to fight fierce battles with the Chinese Army, and in December they had occupied the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, where a reported 200,000 people, including soldiers, prisoners, and noncombatants, were killed, and incited numerous instances of looting, arson, and rape (Nanjing Massacre).
Japanese troops in China had killed hosts of civilians, often after torturing them, when they captured cities that had tried to hold out. In Nanking, for example, as many as 300,000 were killed after the city had fallen.
Aside from the obvious disagreement in death count (ranging from “a reported 200,000” to “more than 300,000”), these passages do not actually contradict each other. Nevertheless, their differing tones and narratives convey starkly divergent impressions of the events in Nanjing. In this respect, these passages are fairly representative of the more than 100 excerpts analyzed; even when they agree on facts, they tell different stories.
As a second example, compare the three passages on the atomic bombings of Japan below, each excerpted from a different textbook—Taiwanese, South Korean, or Chinese. Can you guess the country of origin for each textbook excerpt? (For the correct answers, click here.)
Early in the 34th year , the Nationalists, armed with U.S.-made equipment, waged war in Xiangxi in April and May, dealing a heavy blow against Japan. From then onwards, the Nationalist army began to shift from a defending to attacking stance and launched offensives in targeted areas. With the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S., Japan approached a dead end and announced its unconditional surrender on August 14.
On August 6 and 9, 1945, the U.S. respectively attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, which caused the deaths of 300,000 people. On August 8, the U.S.S.R. declared war against Japan and surrounded and annihilated the Japanese troops in northeastern China. At the same time, anti-Japanese military forces and people in China launched a general counterattack on Japanese troops. With nowhere to go, on September 2 Japan formally signed the instrument of unconditional surrender. The Anti-Fascist World War II concluded with success.
[No mention of the atomic bombings]
Again, these passages do not directly contradict each other, yet they tell quite different stories. Of particular interest to American educators is probably Textbook Z, since it tells no story at all about the atomic bombings—an event that, in the American mind, is among the most significant of the 20th century. How can a history textbook possibly leave it out? Such omissions, in and of themselves, teach us about how historical memory is being shaped in these societies.
Classroom Connections: Bringing Stanford Scholarship to Students
The international comparative nature of the Divided Memories project provides a golden opportunity to help students recognize history textbooks—and history itself—as things that are constructed. By leveraging passages like those above, we can inspire and empower students to identify bias in the world around them, participate in critical historical inquiry, and develop a better understanding of the processes of interpreting, constructing, and transmitting history. In short, we want students to become more sophisticated consumers of information.
When all is said and done, we also want to lead students to a fundamental and challenging insight: the inevitable bias of their own historical knowledge. This can be an especially difficult truth for students to confront, but it is also an intellectually invaluable one. We try to encourage this insight through exercises that lay bare the subjective nature of students’ historical memory.
As a quick example, you may want to engage your students in a brief game of “Name That War.” Can you identify the wars listed below? (For the correct answers, click here.)
1. The North American Intervention
2. The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War
3. The War of Northern Aggression
4. The American War
Students should consider how these war names illustrate the different perspectives and biases of different groups of people—and of us. How might these terms (and the terms by which we know these wars) influence the perceptions of someone who is learning about these events for the first time?
As another example, we show students the fictitious textbook excerpt below.
After reading the text aloud, students are asked to identify the historical event that is depicted. American students, given their familiarity with U.S. history, will almost always recognize the event as the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. But that is not the correct answer. The depicted event is actually the Japanese air raid of Darwin, Australia on February 19, 1942—a similar but completely separate World War II battle.
We ask students to reflect on their mistake. Why did they reflexively think of Pearl Harbor and not Darwin? What does their mistake reveal about their perspective of history? How objective is their historical knowledge? By forcing students to face these questions head-on, we prompt them to contemplate and acknowledge their own biases. Ultimately, by creating a sense of disequilibrium for students and exposing them to multiple perspectives, we hope to lead them to a place of greater self-awareness and open-mindedness for the perspectives of others.
To stay updated on Divided Memories news and other curricular projects, follow SPICE on Facebook or Twitter or join our email list. You can also follow the author directly on Twitter.
For an abbreviated version of the full Divided Memories curriculum unit, see the companion article “Divided Memories: Classroom Exercises.”
Chirot, Daniel, Gi-Wook Shin, and Daniel Sneider, eds. Confronting Memories of World War II: European and Asian Legacies. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.
Shin, Gi-Wook and Daniel C. Sneider, eds. History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia: Divided Memories. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Sneider, Daniel. “Divided Memories: History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia.” Nippon.com, 29 May 2012.
Sneider, Daniel. “Textbooks and Patriotic Education: Wartime Memory Formation in China and Japan.” Asia-Pacific Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2013, 35–54.
Nanjing Passage Comparison answer key:
Textbook A: China
Textbook B: Japan
Textbook C: United States
Click here to return to main text.
Atomic Bombings Passage Comparison answer key:
Textbook X: Taiwan
Textbook Y: China
Textbook Z: South Korea
Click here to return to main text.
“Name That War” answer key:
- The North American Intervention is a Mexican term for the war known in the U.S. as the Mexican–American War or Mexican War.
- The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War is a North Korean term for the war known in the U.S. as the Korean War.
- The War of Northern Aggression is a Southern term for the war more commonly called the American Civil War.
- The American War is a Vietnamese term for the war known in the U.S. as the Vietnam War.