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Schoolbooks -- Japan's latest political battleground

"Education is a battlefield, and the biggest and maybe only losers are our children." Nobuko Katori, a mother of three, drew strong support when she made that criticism at a recent local elementary school PTA meeting.

"The Education Ministry, the politicians, and the teachers' union spend all their time trying to score points off each other and hardly give any thought to the real content of education," she complained.

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Education in Japan has, indeed, long been a battleground. Throughout most of the postwar era, the main antagonists have been the government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Japan Teachers' Union (Nikkyoso), the bulk of whose membership is politically affiliated with the Communist and Socialists parties.

Now, a new element has been added with the unwilling involvement of the Japan Textbook Publishers' Association. The association, supposed to be politically neutral, has been under heavy public fire since a report by the Home Affairs Ministry last month revealed it has been making major donations to members of the LDP for some years.

Since 1975, these appear to total more than $450,000 with about one-quarter of the amount contributed last year.

As the textbook publishers rely almost entirely on government subsidies, critics claim the donations are nothing more than "political kickbacks of state funds."

The association's president has already resigned to accept responsibility, especially for having initially denied that such donations had ever been made. Another senior member of the organization is recovering from an attended suicide.

The donations have become a major issue for several reasons.

First, there is a campaign led by the Finance Ministry to abolish the system of free textbooks for all elementary and junior high school students.

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The government currently pays almost 90 percent in advance of the publishing costs for such books. When the system began in 1963, it cost only some 700 million yen. Last year it was 46 billion yen (about $200 million). The Finance Ministry says parents should pay at least part of the cost in view of chronic deficits in the national budget.

Meanwhile, last year the LDP launched a campaign seeking the rewriting of textbooks, particularly those used in social studies, on the grounds that they are "biased and leftist inclined."

This is part of a wider, and much older movement against the introduction of communistic ideas into the classroom by the teachers' union (whose members have often been sacked or, in the past, jailed for labor actions over the issue of the right to strike).

During the past year also, at least two Cabinet ministers have described certain textbooks as "defective" because they failed to contain material designed to promote patriotism.

The LDP is particularly keen to see "patriotic" education promoted to help win public understanding for increases in national defense spending.

Some publishers are under attack at present for allegedly readily rewriting or deleting parts of textbooks considered biased by the LDP or undesirable by the Education Ministry.

Officials of Nikkyoso say this is out-and-out censorship, a weapon the government is able to wield because of the cozy financial relationship with the textbook publishers.

A spokesman said, "With either the connivance or enforced cooperation of the textbook publshers, we can see a deliberate government attempt to reintroduce the sort of militaristic, ultranationalistic education that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.

"history is being rewritten, for example, to virtually ignore the lessons of the Second World War, and particularly Japan's responsibility for the conflict. Any child reading a modern textbook would gain the clear impression the war started spontaneously and was no onehs fault.

"And increasingly, textbook authors find themselves heavily censored if they tried to write anything which doesn't agree with the LDP's view of the world."

The Textbook Publishers' Association has denied these charges.

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