Japan book row reopens old wounds

References to military's role in mass suicides removed from school texts.

    Haruko Mitahara says her family members were given grenades and ordered to kill themselves


    What Haruko Mitahara remembers, the Japanese government wants people to forget.


    The issue is one of the country's most notorious wartime incidents: during the US invasion of Okinawa in the closing days of the second world war, the Japanese military ordered - and sometimes forced - the islanders to commit suicide.


    "My brother came here after dark and said the American landing was imminent and that the military had ordered a mass suicide," Mitahara said.


    The government ordered publishers to remove
    references to the military's role
    "He told my father, 'let us all die together'. My father asked if we had to die and my brother said it was an order."


    Many were given two hand grenades, one to throw at the enemy, another to use on themselves.


    Being taken prisoner was considered shameful and they were told the invading Americans would show them no mercy.


    "We were all crying," Mitahara recalls. "My brother held his children close and said, 'I am sorry, please don't be scared.' He was crying too. I can remember everything so vividly."


    The cave where her older brother would later kill himself and his family was full.


    On her way to another one nearby, she was captured.


    "The Americans were really kind to us," says Mitahara. "We realised what they’d told us was a lie."


    In April this year, more than six decades after the event, Japan's education ministry instructed textbook publishers to edit out all references to the military's role in the mass suicides.




    The issue has sparked a huge
    backlash from Okinawans
    Japan has frequently been criticised for trying to tone down - in some cases even deny - some of the atrocities its military carried out in Asia during World War II.


    And now old wounds have been reopened afresh at home as well.


    The changes are small involving just a few words - but the reaction in Okinawa has been huge.


    In September, more than 100,000 people turned out to demonstrate and to hear survivors recall how Japanese soldiers ordered them to choose an "honourable death" rather than surrender to the Americans.


    Recently the government has indicated it may alter its stance, asking a special textbook review panel to examine the case.


    "To Okinawans, they're very important words," Toshinonu Nakazato, the chairman of the Okinawa provincial assembly, says.


    "The truth is the truth. Telling the truth, even if it's bad for the country, is important so that young people don't repeat this tragedy."




    The US invasion of Okinawa came in the closing
    days of the second world war
    Editing out all references to the military's role in the mass suicides in textbooks is seen by critics as part of a broader nationalist movement to whitewash Japanese wartime atrocities.


    But Hisahiko Okazaki, director of the Okazaki Research Institute, a conservative think tank-based in Tokyo, says removing the textbook references is the right thing to do because it doesn't have "historical significance".


    "One thing is very obvious," he says, "the government, the Japanese armed forces, never ordered it. The right thing to do is not to refer to it at all".


    The dispute is not about what happened in the caves of Okinawa 62 years ago.


    Rather it is about why - why did thousands of Okinawan civilians commit suicide rather than surrender to the enemy?


    For survivors like Haruko Mitahara, whatever it says in Japanese textbooks, she at least will never forget what happened.


    "I don't know why they're saying the military had no part in it and hide the truth," she says.


    "I don't know why they're trying to lie."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    Interactive: How does your country vote at the UN?

    Interactive: How does your country vote at the UN?

    Explore how your country voted on global issues since 1946, as the world gears up for the 74th UN General Assembly.

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    We dialled more than 35,000 random phone numbers to paint an accurate picture of displacement across South Sudan.

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Meet the man on a mission to take down Cambodia's timber tycoons and expose a rampant illegal cross-border trade.