You are viewing an archived web page, collected at the request of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) using Archive-It. This page was captured on 16:37:39 Dec 16, 2015, and is part of the UNESCO collection. The information on this web page may be out of date. See All versions of this archived page.
Loading media information hide

Historical Reconciliation and Education in Japan: the Role of UNESCO commented by Aigul Kulnazarova

16 November 2015


Aigul Kulnazarova

Undoubtedly UNESCO had an impact on East Asian most complicated disputes over historical reconciliation in the aftermath of World War II. But this impact had its limitations, especially when it came to the revision of history textbooks, a Program launched by UNESCO in 1946. According to the historian Aigul Kulnazarova, despite the efforts deployed by the Organization, the Japanese history education remained ambiguous and partial.

“To ensure permanent peace of the globe, the humanism which each one of us has in our hearts must be welded into one body. UNESCO is the very organization intending to realize this humanism,” said the Japanese national newspaper, Miyako Shimbun, on 17 September 1947. Indeed, the power of peace nurtured “in the minds of men” became a leading motivator for the Post–World War II Japan to promote the Organization’s ideals. Among Japanese officials, educators and active citizens there was a shared and dominated belief that UNESCO could be the only way for Japan to reenter the world community.

By 1948, there were more than one hundred cooperative associations and clubs of UNESCO at the universities, colleges and  high schools across the country.

The questions that were rising in Japanese minds more intensely in the days prior to UNESCO’s membership, such as: “Are we sufficiently prepared to enter UNESCO? Have been UNESCO activities in Japan adequate?,” show how anxious and keen not only the state but also the public were at the time about this new window that could offer Japan a desperately wanted way out to the world stage.

The significance of UNESCO’s possible acceptance was broadly deliberated among the Japanese public and media from the time when the country was in the preparatory stage to the UNESCO membership (1948-1951).

During the Korean War

On 31 January 1951, the Asahi Shimbun released a critical editorial explaining that the “participation in the UNESCO depends upon the world’s estimate of how far the Japanese, once the enemy to most of the participant nations, have been enlightened in the peaceful spirit of UNESCO. From this point of view, the people’s strong consciousness in the UNESCO movement is desired.”

On 17 March 1951 the Nippon Times added more deeply to the self-deprecating analysis of the Japanese UNESCO activities in that given period. “The wartime evils done by the Japanese military still remain a great barrier to Japan’s restoration to a position of trust and confidence as pointed out by the Philippines,” the newspaper reminded its readers. “And in the opinion of the British, the Japanese are not as yet ready to undertake UNESCO activities. These views must give rise to serious self-reflection by the Japanese people, and they offer a challenge to prove that the new Japan believes firmly and sincerely in the fundamental freedoms, human rights, justice and peace.”

Few days later, the Mainichi echoed its counterpart by providing that it was regrettable to see how various UNESCO activities in Japan had slowed down since the outbreak of the Korean War (25 June 1950).

In the National Diet – the Japanese Parliament – UNESCO was rather seen as an opportunity to regain trust, status and reputation among the member states of the United Nations System. It was in that context that at the UNESCO General Conference in summer 1951, which formally admitted Japan to its membership, the Head of the Japanese delegation, Tamon Maeda, stated that the “Spirit of UNESCO is the guiding principle for Japan, which is on the path of rebuilding itself as a peace-loving and democratic state.”

Following the year of Japan’s acceptance to UNESCO, the government in August 1952 established the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO, which actively coordinated all the UNESCO Headquarters’ projects and published works relating to the promotion of education for international understanding and cooperation. The UNESCO Clubs and Associations also moved under the National Commission’s auspices, where continued their activities through disseminating knowledge about human rights, democracy, and mutual understanding.

Books and essays, translated into Japanese and published by the National Commission in its initial years of formation included publications, such as Humanism and Education in East and West from 1953, the Race Question series from 1955, as well as School Textbooks in Japan: A Report of Survey from the Standpoint of Education for International Understanding and Cooperation from 1957 and The Treatment of the West in Textbooks of Japan: A Historical Survey from 1958.


(The UNESCO Courier, July, 1955. © UNESCO)

Japanese students help Korean children

The UNESCO’s Program of Education for International Understanding aimed to develop the universal standards for educational policies and practices concerning peace, human rights, democracy and mutual appreciation of cultures. As defined in the programme’s many recommendations, the word “education” implied the entire process of social life by means of which individuals and social groups learn to develop consciously within, and for the benefit of, the national and international communities, the whole of their personal capacities, attitudes, aptitudes and knowledge. The terms “international understanding,” “cooperation” and “peace” were to be considered as an indivisible whole based on the principle of friendly relations between peoples and States having different social and political systems and on the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Embedded in the principles of UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNESCO’s education for international understanding was foremost concerned with helping school authorities and teaching staff make mutual understanding among peoples a major emphasis in all kinds of education.

In order to advance the program, UNESCO sponsored several international seminars for teachers and specialists to facilitate open discussions and urge for new methodological developments to emphasize international understanding and quality in education.

The first series of the seminars took place from June to November 1950, which were organized in eight major regions of Japan with each seminar lasting for seven days and dealing with various subjects. Among them was a special group project devoted to the “education for international understanding.” At about the same time, a study group of teachers of social studies in secondary and elementary schools had been formed and affiliated to Kyoiku Daigaku (Teacher Training University), the Liberal Arts University of Tokyo and Ochanomizu Women’s University. The study group recommended a range of activities, such as the creation of “pen pals clubs,” the promotion of international understanding in school magazines, and a special course in the 10th grade about the “International Efforts for World Peace.”

The practical implementation of these recommendations did not wait long. In 1951, in several Japanese schools during a campaign, “How can we deepen pupils’ international understanding in lower and upper elementary school?,” the members of UNESCO clubs came up with the idea to give donations for the relief of poor Korean children.

The UNESCO Student Club of Utsunomiya University had raised money for relief in Korea, and Takao Matsuyama, the representative of Student Club sent a check with an enclosed letter that said: “We Japanese who had bitter experience in the past war have great sympathy for the miserable conditions in Korea. Although the donation we are sending you is only a small amount, we sincerely hope that it will be added to a fund for the relief of Korean children as a token of good will and fervent desire for peace among young generation.”

In 1951-52, several other schools and universities in Japan had also raised money for the relief of Korean children. These campaigns illustrated some evidence of developing reconciliation efforts within the private groups of Japanese youth and educators. They attached a “great importance to education for international understanding in Japan,” according to Tadakatsu Suzuki, the Secretary-General of the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO, who expressed his state’s enthusiasm to cooperate with the UNESCO’s Korean Emergency Educational Assistance Program, by providing fellowships and facilities for study-abroad opportunities in Japan to Korean teachers, students and technicians.

In fact, Japan was one of the very few countries in Asia at that time, which played an active role in the UNESCO’s educational campaigns for strengthening international understanding and cooperation among nations. The nature of those Japanese campaigns although endeavoring to promote friendship and assistance to the Korean people eventually did not advance into a greater reconciliation process. Education is, no doubt, the best way to bridge and build mutual understandings among peoples, but only if its aims and teaching materials continually promote peace, cooperation and human rights. In the case of postwar Japan, the tensions evidently  grew out of Japanese national interests to regain trust of the world community and the UNESCO’s guidelines to nurture peace in the minds of men, regardless cultural, historical and social differences that have existed among nations.

Better history textbooks

“History is at once potentially the most divisive and the most unifying of school subjects; none lends itself more readily to the fomenting of prejudice and hostility, or to the fostering of fellow-feeling with all humanity,” it was the core  argument, which was embedded in the opening paragraph of UNESCO’s Programme of Education for International Understanding. As pointed out by the Organizing Programmes  of Education for International Understanding (1965), “the bias toward nationalism is obvious: apart from its possible exploitation for chauvinistic purposes, the common practice is to concentrate attention through most of the school life of the pupil on the history of his own country, and treat other peoples chiefly in so far as they impinged on national interests.”

With this understanding of deeply rooted nationalistic traditions in societies, in 1946 UNESCO proclaimed, as its key policy priority, the improvement of school textbooks in history. At the first General Conference, UNESCO passed an important resolution for the creation of a “Programme for the Improvement of Textbooks and Teaching Materials as Aids in Developing International Understanding.” In accordance with the program’s principles, UNESCO called upon its member states to review history and civics textbooks to ensure that they indeed promote international understanding, tolerance, and peace through improvements of teaching materials.

Within the next couple of years, UNESCO published a detailed plan of action. It recommended member states to carry out studies of their own textbooks and to initiate mutual or bilateral textbook studies. The core of this plan was to create a clearing house on textbook improvements between the member states and the UNESCO Headquarters. The Organization sponsored an international seminar in 1950 in Brussels, Belgium, where the national delegates reached an agreement to revise and improve their school history textbooks in line with the UNESCO’s recommendations that more emphasis should be placed on cultural and social questions and the work of international agencies.

The Japanese official representatives did not take part in this seminar, but similar steps toward the improvement of textbooks had in fact been given a serious consideration by UNESCO Headquarters and the SCAP Authorities (from 1945 to 1952 Japan was under Allied military occupation, headed by the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers).

As early as in May 1949, the UNESCO Expert Committee on Japanese Questions, formed of Australian, Chinese, Filipino and US representatives, met for four days in Tokyo to discuss Japanese measures in accordance with the UNESCO textbook recommendations. In its report to the Executive Board of UNESCO in August 1949, the Committee strongly advised that the “textbooks in use in Japan should be examined to ascertain how closely their contents coincide with UNESCO objectives.”

A difficult issue

Unfortunately, the examinations of Japanese textbooks were not carried out by UNESCO at this early stage due to the fact that the Organization met "severe criticism from those who oppose the execution of activities either in Germany or Japan" (J.W.R. Thomson, Adviser to the Director-General, to Dr. Shi-Mou Lee, 11 August 1949,  UNESCO Archives). Although the UNESCO textbook activities formed a very important part of the improvements of international understanding among nations, they could not be extended to Japan immediately, because of the existing political tensions among UNESCO’s member states concerning Japan’s and Germany’s entry into the Organization.  

The Committee of Experts on Japanese Questions nevertheless decided to “encourage the experiments being undertaken in international education in Japan and to collect information on the results already obtained by international education with a view to promoting international understanding.”

When Japan became an official member of UNESCO, its involvement in the textbooks activities took a high speed. The Ministry of Education, for example, one year prior the membership already put out forty publications on UNESCO with each release ranging from 1,500 to 100,000 copies per issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of those publications, and the most widespread in the country. It was published in English on one page and in Japanese on the opposite.

Since 1953, the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO had carried out two independent surveys on textbooks and teaching materials within the primary and secondary schools curriculum, released in 1954 and 1956. They showed that the teachings of national and foreign (world) histories were not always taught in parallel in the Japanese schools, therefore for the purpose of education for international understanding only the textbooks teaching the world histories were analyzed. The European history was largely described in the Japanese textbooks, where Asian history was less or taught only from a pre-Modern perspective. For example, to the Ancient Chinese History a large number of pages were devoted in the textbooks. As the authors of the survey reported the reasons for such unbalanced treatments of world or regional histories in the Japanese textbooks were due to the fact that “Japan after the Modern Times is built up under the influences of West European culture and civilization.”

Another major report, which the Japanese National Commission for UNESCO published in 1958, was The Treatment of the West in Textbooks of Japan: A Historical Survey, which emphasized the modification of textbooks in Japanese high schools since the nineteenth century Meiji Era. The same approach was evident in this report as well – less or no teaching about Asian modern history, but more of the West. In general these studies, conducted in postwar Japan, largely ignored or overlooked the modern history of Japan’s relations with Korea and other neighboring countries.

Although UNESCO’s history textbook campaigns formed part of the Japanese educational reforms, the complex field of historical reconciliation was for most part undermined. As  a result of state policy, history textbooks in Japan to this day, according to many critics especially outside Japan, have a major problem in reflecting objectively the war memories and the shared past with Korean, Chinese and other Asian nations, which limits the young generations’ awareness and opportunity to learn about their history in a more critical and unbiased way.

The problem of history education and textbooks in East Asia cannot be solved without teachings about colonialism and war crimes and, most importantly, without their recognition within the state’s educational system.

Aigul Kulnazarova

*          *          *

A. Kulnazarova is Professor of International Relations at the School of Global Studies, Tama University, Japan. Originally from Kazakhstan, she came to Japan in 2001 first as Japan Foundation Invited Fellow at Nagoya University, after having served as Dean of the School of Law at Kazakh-American University among other duties. She is member of the Global History of UNESCO Project sponsored by the Danish Council for Independent Research in 2013-17. She is the co-editor of UNESCO Without Borders: Educational campaigns for international understanding, a forthcoming book from Routledge in 2016.

A. Kulnazarova took part at the Conference Making a Difference: Seventy Years of UNESCO Actions held at UNESCO on 28 and 29 October 2015. The full version of this article will be published in 2016, in the book A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts, edited by Poul Duedahl.