The Textbook Authorisation Council on Thursday (Feb 28) started discussing ways to improve its textbook screenings, a response to criticism made last year over the screening of high school textbooks on Japanese history and their account of the mass suicides of civilians during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, saying the discussions over the issue were not transparent.
The council, an advisory panel to the education, science and technology minister, will finalise its opinion by summer, along with a reexamination of the screening standards to ensure they are in line with revisions of school curriculum guidelines.
The most important task in screening textbooks is to remove unjust interferences. Even if more transparency is brought to the process, it is vital that more attention be paid to prevent interferences.
Meetings of the council, which is tasked with screening whether descriptions in textbooks are appropriate, are held behind closed doors - not just for general sessions, but also meetings of committees for each subject and the relevant subcommittees.
Only for the general session is a summary of the proceedings drawn up, but with speakers' names withheld, before being posted on the ministry's Web site after screenings are completed. No gist is drawn up for the meetings of committees and subcommittees.
The ministry has said one of the reasons for this is so council members can freely exchange their views in quiet surroundings that allow for discussions to proceed smoothly.
During 2000 and 2001, drafts of a middle school history textbook compiled by members of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform were leaked to outsiders, and the Chinese and South Korean governments expressed strong opposition to descriptions in the books, even before the council had decided whether the textbook was appropriate.
Although the textbook eventually was approved in screenings, the fairness and neutrality of such screenings is threatened if unjust interferences and pressures are added.
It is extremely important to secure an environment that allows members to engage in calm discussions.
At present, the drafts that the textbook publishers submit for screening, and samples approved by the council, are shown to the public after the screenings as well as the council's opinions on and comparative tables of before and after revisions.
Since the discussion process is completely closed, it is difficult, through just viewing the council's opinions and samples, to understand the process leading to conclusions reached by the meetings.
Would it not be better to consider disclosing the gist of the proceedings at the committees and subcommittees after the screenings are completed?
Appropriate post-verification following these screenings could help future screenings.
For example, based on study reports submitted by the textbook examiners, who are employees at the education ministry, we would be able to see how council members make their arguments. This in turn would add further pressure and responsibility on examiners and council members when executing their duties.
At the screenings, regarding complicated events as well as issues involving various views, expert members are selected as may be necessary, and they provide materials for the examiners to prepare reports.
For the descriptions on the drafts submitted by the textbook publishers regarding the mass suicides during the Battle of Okinawa, the council issued an opinion that they were not certain whether the Imperial Japanese Army had forced residents to commit mass suicide.
If opinions from historians specialising in the Battle of Okinawa had been included, it could have served to add further persuasiveness to the council's decision.
We would like the council to examine an improvement plan for its screening process, including the effective use of expert members.