Thursday, 23 April 2015

Liberation Day: a symbol of times that have changed

Today, 23rd of April is the memorial day for the Liberation of Nanjing.
Living in China was the first time to hear about Nanjing Liberation Day.  I assumed, naively, it was commemorating the relief and exhausted elation that must have followed the Japanese withdrawal from the city.  But it wasn't.
In the decades after the war the struggle was internal: the enemy was within. Nanjing's Liberation Day commemorated the day that the Communists defeated the Nationalists and established control over the city.  The train to Nanjing would play The Song of the Yangtze River (see the clip below) as it crossed the river on the way into Nanjing. Another teacher assured me the song was as a reminder of the Communist victory as they fought their way from the north into the city, though lyrics checking leaves me a bit skeptical about the veracity of this.

But the point is China's situation has shifted and so has the common enemy. Rather than class struggle defeating those with suspect 'rightist' pasts, the enemy is outside, most notably Japan.  In recent years Japan deserves a lot of flack for its position  (particularly after the PM's very slippery speech in Bandung that avoided any sense of responsibility for the war) but it'd be disingenuous not to notice the shift that has been occurring in China.    

On another matter Chinese today, I saw  a startling admission from a Shanghai based scholar, Fudan University Professor Ge Jianxiong, 62 that Tibet was not always part of China. 

HONG KONG: A leading Chinese historian and a veteran of the committee that advises on official Chinese history textbooks has broken step with the official Chinese line on historical sovereignty over Tibet and said that to claim that the ancient Buddhist kingdom “has always been a part of China” would be a “defiance of history”.

The Song of the Yellow River (almost, but not quite as militaristic as the one on the train to Nanjing in 1999-2000).

Sunday, 19 April 2015

If I were writing the history curriculum.

All school curricula are ideological: what they contain reflects society's, or at least the elite's ideas about what is important.  Aborigines used not to feature in Australian school history books; Australia was first settled in 1788, and there begins Australian history.  Nowdays, Aboriginal history is integral to the curriculum. Countries and governments make very deliberate choices about what is taught and what is excluded.   The NSW history curriculum still has too much focus on national studies.  Learning Japan, or China, or Germany or any other of the multitude of national studies that are available means broader international trends tend to get glossed over.

The Japanese and American practice of dividing history according to Domestic History and World History is also artificial. When I teach Japanese history and look at Japan's interactions with other countries, students can be perplexed because it's not "Japanese history" it's World history.    Currently the Japanese national curriculum does not prepare students for engaging with the world, even though there is increasing talk of "globalization'.

There are two major problems with the Japanese history curriculum. The first is the approach.  History is still taught as a subject of facts to be regurgitated: who, what, where and when.  Names, dates, places.  Why and how are far less important, and again are taught as facts.  There is little in the way of "higher order" skills such as evaluation, analysis, or hypothesizing / (re)creating.  Furthermore source analysis is not included. There is nothing as far as I can see in the system that would for example when studying  the dropping of the atomic bombs try to weigh up the moral arguments or the practical arguments.  It's easier to simply say naive Japanese were deceived by their government and the Americans dropped the bombs which caused untold misery.    It goes across all topics though, not simply the war.

The second issue, which gains a lot more coverage is the content.  If I were writing Japan's national curriculum I'd be conscious of the fact that peace in the region is currently fragile and would have regional respect as a goal.  This is ideological, but, like including topics to promote multicultural harmony in Australia, it'd be working towards a stable, peaceful society and region.   Currently Japan's curriculum is too national centric - building a romanticized image of Japan. Japan as a country of superior culture, customs, and flowing on from that people.  (Again, this is not something Japan is alone in doing.)  Relations with SEA and to some extent China are defined in terms of Japan being benevolent.  Japan is the kind regional aid donor.  This is very nice, and students often say they want to go and rescue poor children, but they fail to ask why are they poor, and they fail to see the needy in Japanese society.    IMO Japan should put more emphasis on historic connection of the region Korea and China but also including Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam where there were sizable Japanese communities in the pre-Edo era.    Currently I don't think there is anything much in the curriculum about migration theories from the south and through Korea.  There's little sense that the Japanese were not always "here". Along with this, there is also nothing much on the displacement of the Japanese native Ainu.   Few students know anything much about Japan's invasion of Korea in the 1590s - ignorance that is unimaginable to Koreans.   

Problems tend to be things that are outside Japan. As I've written before, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior are favourite topics in school textbooks as they struggle for rights against racist white domination.  It's true and it's a good topic, but I've yet to see it brought back to Japanese society and question the struggle for rights of Zainichi Korean or Ainu people.  There is little to question gender stereotypes either.

If I were writing the curriculum, I'd also include frank assessment of the rise of modern Japan and the origins of the war. I'd look at imperialism being an international trend, that Japan got swept up in, and how Japan evolved from being a target of western imperialism to being an aggressively imperialist country.  Looking at the past honestly means understanding what happened, and why; it doesn't mean endless self flagellation of things that can't be changed.  Understanding how Japan went from being an ally of the US / UK / France in WWI to being an enemy by the late 30s, is really important for mature understanding of history and for understanding the neighbours.   There's a tendency in Japan to see itself as a victim. (I actually had a student say that yesterday - until she saw the movie Pearl Harbour with her grandfather, when she was in middle school, she had no idea that Japan had attacked other countries. She had only known about the atomic bombs.) It's not just the ministry of education but an omission of society. Few students know anything about the Thai Burma railway, Unit 731, the death marches in Borneo and the Philippines. They also know nothing of local massacres / slave labour during the war.  I have given students a list of wartime incidents - Singapore Massacre, Hanaoka Massacre, Thai-Burma Railway, Sandakan Death March, Bataan Death March, Unit 731, Manilla Massacre, and the Joetsu POW camp (this is a little different, but it, like Hanaoka is a good example of post war efforts for reconciliation). I've never had a student know more than three of them. Few students have any idea that Japan bombed Australia. (It's possible that Australian students don"t know it either...)  Most students know Japan did "bad things" but no sense of what or how or why.

Several students said yesterday they have been overseas and felt very ignorant when asked questions about Japan's military and political past and present, They said that they had absolutely no idea about it. I feel really bad for them. The curriculum doesn't prepare them to engage with people from other countries at all. They look ignorant, (they are ignorant) but unless you've had a catalyst to look more deeply, it's not really reasonable to criticize them. The current education minister believes bad parts (truth) in history shouldn't be taught because it makes students feel worthless. Instead they should be taught patriotic history. I couldn't disagree more. 

Failure to teach history honestly is one of the greatest disservices the education system is inflicting on Japanese society.  If history is sanitized, the foundation for understanding the present has been erased.

History education and a classroom anecdote

In a previous incarnation I used to be a history teacher, and as such stories about way that history is taught - or not taught - are close to my heart.

As I've already written,  here Disquiet about the current government's tendency towards historical revisionism has been growing among liberals* in Japan.  I've already written about this a few weeks ago.  The issue of history textbooks has been in the news: one textbook maker has removed all reference to the Nanjing massacre and almost all have adopted the government line that territorial dispute are not disputes, but Japan's territory. In addition the Meiji government now gave land to the disposed Ainu rather than taking it away. (Rather the same as if Aus. textbooks wrote of Australia bestowing land on Aboriginal people rather than dispossessing them...)
The topic of Japan and the war comes up in my classes a lot, partly because I teach Japanese history and Japanese society, but it also comes up in academic speaking in classes where most students will go overseas.  It seems a failure in duty of care to send students overseas with no knowledge of sensitive issues they may be asked about.

In class the other day, a number of students had written that they took the class because when they did homestay overseas they were asked question about Japan that they had no idea about. In class I asked them what kind of topics had left them flummoxed.  Invariably it they had been in the US and it was issues of military and government that had come up.

As the class progressed and we were going through the concept of society changing over time, and ideas of normal changing over time, I asked them about Japan's changing relations with foreign countries over time.  Only one student in the class identified China as the predominant influence on Japan if one considers all history, not just modern history.  Most students said the US (fair if modern history only is considered), many said the Netherlands.  All students could identify many Chinese cultural influences - art, architecture, food, tea, writing, language, but not rice, silk, Confucianism or  political influences (most notably the Taika reforms).  All students said they'd never though about the influence of China on Japan, even though they were aware of the influence.

From China, to the Portugeuse, to Sakoko (closed country) and Rangaku (study via the Dutch, to the Unequal Treaties was an easy progression. The leap to imperialism however was much more difficult. Furthermore  teikoku shugi - the word that translates as imperialism, does not really have a sense of aggressive land grabbing and raping and pillaging the population of occupied countries. (Certainly not unique to Japan.)

At this point a student asked if Japan and China had ever fought each other in a war....

Um.. yes...

To be fair to the student, she knew she should have known, and full credit to her that she had the courage and interest to ask. She also was knowledgeable about the revised interpretation of the constitution and knew it meant Japan was now more likely to go to war.  It's an odd combination that merits further investigation.  How can a student in Japan go through until the age of 20 not knowing Japan invaded China?  Part of it is the student, but to leave it at that I think misses a much bigger picture.

Some more detail on textbook changes:

* for any Americans, this is not intended as a pejorative.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Tokyo picture quiz

I'm teaching a course that's going to focus on tourism in Japan.  Even though students are mostly from Tokyo, it often seems that many have little idea of the city. The construction site (the new fish markets) will probably be substituted before the class.
Any takers? If the place taken from and the subject are clearly different, both should be mentioned.
P.S. Many thanks to my little sister who kindly let me use some of her photos.

And thanks to this site that converted a PDF to JPG so I could upload it.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Jobs continued. The outside guard.

The other day, I went to the university where I have most of my classes.
I didn't recognize the guard so I said hello, introduced myself. She didn't give me her name, so I asked her.

Guard: "But I'm (just) from the security company".
      (translation, I'm not a university employee, so my name isn't important (to you?)
Me: "But you're here often?"
Guard: "Yes"
Me: "Well we'll often meet."
Guard:  "Oh.... and she told me her name".

It reminded me of asking students why most of them don't greet the guard in the morning, even though she greets them... The students agreed that they mostly didn't greet the guard. One of the most basic manners drummed into kids in Japan is the importance of "aisatsu"  - greetings.  "Make a good community, let's greet each other", "Greetings are important" type slogans.
I'm not quite sure at what point 'aisatsu' begin to be exclusive and reserved for people in the same group... A point for investigation...

At any rate, I said hello to the guard on my way in the next day, and she very cheerily greeted me back.  Small steps.  Very small steps.