In a move that is sure to increase tensions in an already fraught region, Japan moved to revise its middle and high school teaching guidelines to refer to the disputed islets at Takeshima (known as Dokdo in South Korea) and Senkaku (known as Diaoyu in China) as “integral territories of Japan,” according to Japanese Education Minister Hakubun Shimonura.
Shimonura added, “As we are striving to develop human resources who can do well globally, it is only natural to teach students about our territories in a correct manner.” He brushed off the implications for Japan’s relations with its neighbors, noting that Japan would “provide polite explanations for both China and South Korea.”
South Korea immediately summoned the Japanese ambassador to Seoul upon learning of the news, and foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young condemned the Japanese policy. Cho said that South Korea’s government “strongly condemns this [action], and demands that they withdraw this immediately. If the Japanese government does not follow this, our government will take firm measures that corresponds to this right away.”
China responded to the policy via a regularly scheduled Foreign Ministry press conference. Spokesperson Hua Chunying said “We express grave concerns over this, and we have lodged solemn representations with the Japanese side.” She added, “We urge the Japanese side to respect historical facts, stop provocations, teach the younger generation with a correct historical perspective and improve its relations with neighbors with concrete actions.”
Additionally, a Xinhua editorial argues that Japan’s “fact-twisting manuals … will confuse Japanese students about what the true history is.” The editorial ties the textbook revision directly to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist agenda for Japan. The editorial argues that “such whitewashing and fact-twisting tricks will be bound to make the path for Japan to improve ties with its neighbors more bumpy, not mention the trust- and friendship-building in the long run, as Japan’s younger generations, the future of a nation, are kept from truth by the reckless Abe administration.”
The move comes almost exactly a month after Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine which enraged South Korea and China, prompting the latter to bar any diplomatic contact with Abe pending an apology for his visit. 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni and Abe became the first prime minister of Japan since Junichiro Koizumi to visit the shrine while in office.
While the move isn’t directly related to Japan’s foreign policy, South Korean and Chinese observers remain sensitive to developments in Japan’s domestic politics and policy that revise history. A series of gaffes by senior Japanese politicians and businessmen have in the past caused Chinese and South Korean observers to react with indignation. The teaching guideline revisions will further complicate the diplomatic picture in northeast Asia and help cement the perception of Shinzo Abe as an irascible nationalist, aloof to South Korean and Chinese sensitivities.
According to the Asahi Shimbun, South Korean diplomats, as recently as December 2013, lobbied their Japanese counterparts to engage in a trilateral meeting with China. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni and the news of the new teaching guidelines will place that objective farther out of reach.
Historical revisionism in textbooks is not unique to Japan in the region. Both South Korea and China employ similar policies, particularly when it comes to sensitive historical matters.