East Asian history education is tainted with bias

When it comes to equations and the periodic table, East Asian school systems have traditionally taught the right stuff. In the delicate realm of history, however, Asian education has defined itself by what it has refused to teach.

Japan is most renowned for textbook whitewashing, particularly of its own brutality in World War II—and the books are only getting worse. Mentions of “comfort women”—sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war—have almost disappeared in recent editions. Yoshibumi Tawara, spokesman for the textbook watchdog group Children and Textbooks Japan Network 21, says there is no overt government censorship, but the government exerts pressure behind the scenes, largely due to right-wing coercion. “I believe there was strong pressure on the publishing companies,” he says. South Korea has complained about Japan’s textbooks for decades, but its own government controls all history textbooks and massages the darker parts of Korea’s past, such as former President Park Chung Hee’s human rights abuses. In Singapore, where the Ministry of Education controls all textbooks, the government’s priority is “developing national cohesion.” The result: a form of indoctrination-as-education that some Malaysian academics charge uses the race riots of the 1960s to scare citizens into unity.

Some places, however, are freeing up their pasts. Hong Kong recently announced that its new syllabi might include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, eight years after a jittery Education Department ordered its deletion from a textbook. Taiwan’s textbooks, controlled by the long-ruling Kuomintang, once portrayed mainland Chinese as “living in hell.” But democratic reforms have allowed schools to teach such shameful national events as the 2-2-8 massacre—the slaughter of up to 20,000 indigenous Taiwanese in 1947.

Even in Asia’s other democracies, there’s still some catching up to do. In Thailand, the bloodily suppressed democratic protests of 1973, 1976 and 1992 are taboo subjects. The Education Ministry assigned a poet to write an account of the Oct. 14, 1973 uprising, but later appointed a three-man review panel that included Dr. Suwit Yodmani, son-in-law of the army commander who allegedly ordered troops to fire that day on protesting students. Suwit—no surprise—rejected the poet’s account, and government-approved textbooks have remained silent on the events, leaving many Thais in the dark to this day. Post-Suharto Indonesia has officially ended textbook censorship, although old history books that deliberately omitted the slaughter of alleged communist sympathizers in the mid-1960s are still in circulation. (The current Education Ministry encourages teachers to get around this by using as many outside references as possible, and may soon revise out-of-date texts.) For countries coming to grips with the burden of history, the key has been flexibility in education. In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, curriculum change is directed from the bottom up. In Hong Kong, committees composed of teachers, academic experts and government officials decide on textbooks. Technically, the government has the final word, but it “has a supervisory role, not an authoritative one,” according to a Hong Kong education official. “There has not been a single case where a committee proposed a curriculum and the government rejected it.” Taiwan has opened up the writing of all textbooks to the private sector.

History textbooks are the record of a nation’s conscience, and may do more to shape ideas and influence minds than anything learned with a slide rule or abacus. What Asian students are taught is increasingly becoming just as important as how.

(adapted from TIME)