Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Negotiating the Narrative: Japan’s History Textbooks, Wartime Atrocities, and the Conservative Agenda

Negotiating the Narrative: Japan’s History Textbooks, Wartime Atrocities, and the Conservative Agenda

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: Thematic Strand Index:
Strand 1: Culture
Strand 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
Strand 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
Strand 9: Global Connections

Common Core State Standards for English Lang. Arts & Literacy in History/Social Science, 6-12
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

Michigan K-12 Standards for Social Studies (pending May 2018)
Contemporary Global Issues (CG3) Patterns of Global Interactions: Define the process of globalization and evaluate the merit of this concept to describe the contemporary world by analyzing cultural diffusion and the different ways cultures/societies respond to “new” cultural ideas

Contemporary Global Issues (CG4) Conflict, Cooperation, and Security: Analyze the causes and challenges of continuing and new conflicts by describing: (a) tensions resulting from ethnic, territorial, religious, and/or nationalist differences, and (b) causes of and responses to ethnic cleansing/genocide/mass extermination

1. Examine primary and secondary sources detailing the Rape of Nanking and the use of “Comfort Women” by the Japanese military during World War II.
2. In small groups, discuss the severity of these wartime atrocities and their significance within the broader context of World War II.
3. Investigate the reasons why the Rape of Nanking and the use of “Comfort Women” have provoked debate among publishers of K-12 history textbooks in Japan.
4. Analyze the ways in which the Japanese people, its government and other nations have responded to the ongoing debate.
5. Evaluate the extent to which Japan’s textbook debate mirrors disagreements in the United States that center on academic standards for Social Studies, the alleged bias of history textbooks, and the removal/preservation of Confederate statues.

This lesson will require 2-3 class periods and functions as an appropriate addition to any larger historical unit on World War II. Given the graphic nature of the resources used in this lesson, teachers are encouraged to consider carefully the age and maturity of their students.

Day 1
1. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 students.
2. Distribute informational packets and question sheets to student groups. The packet and questions can be accessed by downloading the lesson plan provided through FPRI. The packet includes the following articles:
BBC article: Scarred by history:The Rape of Nanjing
Newsweek article: Exposing the Rape of Nanking
Eyewitness History: The Rape of Nanking
CNN: A lifetime later, a Korean ‘comfort woman’ still seeks redress
BBC: Comfort Women
Also available online: The Apology: Stories of Asia’s ‘Comfort Women’

3. Allow student groups sufficient time to read through the packets and complete the question sheets.
4. Facilitate a class discussion of the groups’ insights and conclusions.

Day 2
1. Instruct students to return to their small groups from Day 1.
2. Distribute copies of “Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies”, an article written by Kathleen Woods Masalski of the Stanford Program on International and Cross Cultural Education.
3. Allow students time to read this overview of the ongoing debate regarding Japanese history textbooks.
4. Facilitate a class discussion using the questions detailed below.
a) Describe the textbook selection process used by the Japanese government and schools.
b) Who is Ienaga Saburo and why did he sue Japan’s Ministry of Education?
c) Why did the Japanese government challenge the historical narrative presented in Saburo’s textbook?
d) The controversy over Japan’s history textbooks reclaimed the spotlight in 1982. What changes to the historical narrative had the Japanese government permitted and why did this alarm the people of the nations that neighbor Japan?
e) In the 1990s a conservative movement gained support and rallied for textbook reforms. Led by Professor Fujioka Nobukatsu, how did this group hope to change the content of Japan’s history textbooks? How would their depiction of Japan’s wartime actions differ from the narrative most often presented in Japanese textbooks?
f) How did other nations respond to the conservative movement’s attempts to rewrite history?
g) What lessons can American teachers and students learn from Japan’s ongoing textbook debate?

Teachers can modify the student informational packets by providing excerpts of the articles instead of assigning the articles in their entirety.

Compare/contrast Japan’s textbook debate with the ongoing controversies involving history education in the United States. Thoughtfully consider how a nation’s controversial history (e.g. slavery, forced relocation of Native Americans, the US military actions in Vietnam, etc) should be addressed in K-12 history textbooks.

Examine excerpts from the New History Textbook published by the ultra-conservative Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform. Consider how omissions and word choice can significantly change Japanese students’ understanding of wartime atrocities. Excerpts (in English) are available online at

Investigate how and why the Yasukuni Shrine has sparked debate among Japanese scholars, diplomats and other world leaders in recent years. For insight, see pages 307-309 of The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War. Published by Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation (2014). Available online at

Analyze the extent to which Cold War politics postponed critical analysis of wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese military. One resource that provides insight on this topic is “Healing Historical Wounds” on pages 333-335 of The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War. Published by Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation (2014). Available online at

Chang, Iris. “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.” New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Hein, Laura and Mark Selden, eds. “Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States.” New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2000.

Katsuichi, Honda. “The Nanjing Massacre.” New York, M. E. Sharpe, 1999.

Masalski, Kathleen Woods. “Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies.” Stanford Program on International and Cross Cultural Education, 2001.

“Scarred by history: The Rape of Nanjing.” BBC 11 April 2005.

“Exposing the Rape of Nanking.” Newsweek 30 November 1997.

Ripley, Will. “A lifetime later, a Korean ‘comfort woman’ still seeks redress. ” CNN 29 April 2015.

Williamson, Lucy. “Comfort Women.” BBC 29 May 2013.

“The Nanjing Atrocities: Crimes of War. ” Published by Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation (2014). Available online at

Eyewitness History: The Rape of Nanking

  • Amy Perkins
  • Lakeshore High School
Grade Level
  • High School: 9, 10, 11, 12
Time Frame
  • 20th Century

If you have any questions about this lesson plan, or if you wish to contact the author, please email us at