Japanese teacher disciplined for opposing nationalist textbooks

I wonder whether anyone else has seen this article from the Christian Science Monitor, which I picked up via the Marmot’s Hole and Far Outliers. It concerns the story of a teacher in Tokyo who has been disciplined for attacking the view that “Japan never invaded Korea.”

[W]hen a Tokyo city councilman in an official meeting said “Japan never invaded Korea,” her history class sent an apology to Korean President Roh Moo-hyan – an action that sparked her removal from her classroom.


Masuda, who says her two sons have Korean friends, got censured after her class did a study group on Japan’s occupation of Korea. Her social studies class wrote a letter of apology to Roh, and sent it to the Korean Embassy in Toyko. In a cover letter, Masuda said that councilman Koga Toshiaki’s remarks were “a disgrace” by objective historical standards, but “regrettably [they] can be presented proudly as a triumph in the assembly of Tokyo, the capital of this country.”

The class never heard from the Korean consul. But Masuda did hear from the Tokyo Board of Education. Her letter was discovered by a Yasukuni shrine support group and they complained to city officials. Masuda was told that while Mr. Koga did speak in public, it was “inappropriate” for Masuda to repeat his name in a letter that was not private, and a violation of city employee codes.

Masuda is now ordered to spend her days in a small room studying public servant regulations, a serious humiliation she says. She in turn is trying to fight in court.

I wonder if there is any sort of support campaign for Ms Masuda, or if there is an e-mail address where those of us who want to can send messages of support.


  1. I am a public school teacher in the US. A good teacher teaches students how to think, not what to think. Examining Japan’s colonization was appropriate, but having the students write a letter of apology to the Korean president was not. Some of the students may not have wanted to write the letter, but they could not refuse an assignment from the teacher. Besides, why should school children apologize for a politician’s remarks? Ms. Masuda’s intentions were sincere, but she erred in judgment.

  2. Obviously I agree with Ms. Masuda’s position and the content of the letter but I think I also find it inappropriate for the teacher, especially if students were not given a choice in the matter (where they?), to compose a letter of this kind.

  3. I think we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about how Ms Masuda’s students came to send an apology to the Korean government. I’m not going to claim that I know any more than anyone else does, but the CSM article does give us some more detail about her teaching style, which to me at least, doesn’t back up the idea of an authoritarian teacher who forces her students to do things or stifles their individual sense of judgment:

    “Masuda seems a little stubborn, a little leftist, but a stickler for details in the way of junior high teachers around the world. She brightens immediately when the subject turns to teaching. She is proud her classes are not rote memory exercises typical in Japanese public schools. She requires “Discussion Papers” where students have to show how they arrive at conclusions. Papers deal with topics like Hiroshima and Iraq.”

    Sounds to me as though within the context of East Asian educational norms this woman is a model for other teachers.

    (As an aside, I like the way that in the eyes of this journalist the adjectives ‘stubborn’ and ‘leftist’ have become unequivocally pejorative.)

    It should also be noted that the reason she has been disciplined is not directly related to the apology sent by her class. It was because she mentioned the name of a Tokyo City councilman in a private letter.

    A final point: did anyone notice the bit at the end of the article about the reaction of the Asahi Shimbun to complaints about its blatantly biased coverage of Masuda’s case? Forgive me for my ignorance of Japan, but I thought Asahi was supposed to be the country’s liberal newspaper.

  4. I thought it was that she mentioned the name of the councilor in the apology from the class: I can believe that somewhere in the civil service regulations is a technicality forbidding the mention of “private individuals” in public communications, and it is on those grounds that she’s been disciplined.

    Asahi’s response isn’t actually all that surprising: it’s typical of Japanese newspaper reporting related to government actions. The pool of reporters who work on government affairs have very close relationships with the bureaucracy and could very easily find themselves shut out of briefings if they don’t hew pretty close to the official line.

    On the substantive question, I have something of a mixed feeling. In a technical sense, I don’t think you can really point to any of Japan’s actions against Korea as an “invasion” in the sense of a mass military operation. That doesn’t mean that Korea wasn’t dominated militarily, that Japan didn’t use force when necessary to protect and expand its control, that colonial occupation wasn’t brutal and damaging. It does mean that we need to carefully educate our students about the “soft” (formal and informal) processes of colonial domination and control, and the realities of subaltern experience. It’s a “distinction without a difference” and while the statement may (and I’m open to disagreement, really) be technically correct, it is still objectionable because the intent of the statement clearly is to make the occupation of Korea a “blameless” non-violent process, which is a distortion of the truth.

  5. Some quick points on this:

    Let’s look at Councilman Koga’s words, as quoted in CSM: “It is not proper to describe a war of aggression by Japan. Where and when in the world did Japan ever invade? I’d like to ask, once and for all, when where and which country….”

    It seems that Koga and his ilk want to deny not only the invasion of Korea but that Japan ever invaded anywhere. It is of course the case that any country that invades another will never admit that it is invading, it will always have a ‘legitimate’ reason to ‘station its troops’ in another country, to protect a threatened minority (viz Poland 1939), to disarm a rogue state or liberate its people (viz Iraq 2003). People like Koga are simply trying to revive the old ideological justifications of imperial Japan (ie Japan was Korea’s protector, the Korean government invited the Japanese etc etc).

    We should also note that under a fairly uncontroversial definition of invasion (ie stationing military forces in a country against the will of its government or people and or fighting other military forces within the country in question) we can say that Japan invaded Korea on more than one occasion, in particular during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 when Japanese troops fought both the Chinese and the Korean Tonghak armies up and down the country.

  6. Those remarks aren’t actually in the CSM article linked above. They do give a bit more crucial context, don’t they?

    I have to think about the definitional question: not that your definition of invasion isn’t reasonable, but I’m not sure it’s really historically helpful (particularly the second half) because it still leaves open the question of the scale, intents (stated and unstated) and effects (immediate and long-term) of the actions in question. Not all invasions are imperialistic in intent or effect: the fundamental problem with regard to Japan’s treatment of Korea is not primarily a military one, but the way in which force of arms, trade, and international law created an inequitable relationship.

    Not all justifications are mere rationalizations….

  7. Mr. Dresner, Ignoring the 1592 and 1597 invasions (Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion” is an excellent account), it would seem that Japan’s actions between 1894 and 1907 are ample evidence that Korea had been “invaded”, however we may dislike that word. As I understand it, in 1894, Japan, un-invited, deployed thousands (15,000+ ?) of troops to Korea as a counterweight to several thousand Chinese troops, which had been requested by the Choseon dynasty to deal with a combined Tonghak/Uibyeong (righteous army) force. Following defeat of the rebels, the Japanese demanded that China withdraw from Korea, and when they did not, Japan launched the Sino-Japanese war. In the wake of her victory, Japan withdrew the majority of her forces, but left some six and a half modern battalions in Korea. Exercising its influence on the Court, Japan undertook to train three battalions of Korean troops to Japanese military standards. When circles within the Court, identified as allied with Queen Min, began fomenting opposition to Japan’s presence, Japan’s senior representative launched an operation which ended in the penetration of the royal palace by Japanese agents and Korean supporters, and the murder of the Queen. In 1904/05, Japan again brought large numbers of troops into Korea, and indeed used Korea as a springboard to military operations in China (following a strategy originally laid down by Hideyoshi). With Russia defeated, the Japanese resident general intimidates the Korean government into signing a treaty relegating that country to the status of a protectorate. Finally, in 1907, Japan convenes a combined military conference in Seoul and essentially dissolves the “Yi” army, leaving the Japanese Army as the only organized military force on the peninsula. And finally, as an afterthought, and perhaps piqued by King Kojong’s attempts to enlist the aid of the Hague Convention, Japan annexes Korea. An act made much simpler by the relatively massive number of Japanese troops at the beck and call of the Resident General, in contrast to the absolute zero sum balance of Korean troops under Korean command. We can dispute exactly when the introduction of Japanese military forces peaked at whatever constitutes an “invasion”, but I believe that the act itself is pretty well established. Indeed, it is self-evident, contrary to the Chomskyite massive mental gymnastics used by the far-left to label U.S. presence in the former Republic of Vietnam as an “invasion”. The Department of Defense is no less enamored of mental gymnastics, and in late 1983 was doing everything in its power to avoid terming our invasion of Grenada (an act gratefully and massively supported by the island’s inhatibants) as precisely that. (Thus the emphasis upon “rescue operation”.) A rose by any other name…

  8. Interesting comments. It appears there are two threads here, one centering on the Masuda and her class and the other centered on the action of Japan vis-a-vis korea during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

    Lirelou has identified the semantic issue very well, but I do not think one can dismiss the claim that Japan did not invade Korea. In our modern world, semantics quite often carries with it legal consequences (that is one reason if individuals in America apologize for some action, they are exposed to the potential legal liability). So when one uses the word invasion, it not only carries the connotation of military occupation and plunder, but also that it was done at least extralegally, if not illegally.

    Not only Korea, but the domination of Manchuria (which military war was not between Japan and China, but between Japan and Russia) was per international protocol and the results recognized by the international community. That legal recognition, and the fact that there was no traditional military operation that usually constitutes an “invasion” leads me to agree with Dresner.

    As for the teacher and her class, that is a different issue. I am not really one for all this public apology (if that is what they did). They are not agent’s for their governemnt, nor are they agent’s for those who conducted the occupation and colonization of Korea, so how can they apologize for anyone so involved. I suppose one can offer regret, but an apololgy is meaningless.

  9. Personally, I do not believe that the task of the historian is really about interpreting international law. There are many other material and ideological factors we can examine to arrive at an answer to this question (did Japan invade Korea?).

    International law itself is an incredibly slippery set of concepts and there are all sorts of debates going on within that field (most of which I am entirely ignorant of). However, I think would tend toward China Mieville’s view, as expressed in his recent book, that “international law is fundamentally constituted by the violence of imperialism.”

    Actually, though, it strikes me that perhaps we should step back from the details of this before it becomes a meaningless semantic discussion. Japan WAS an imperialist power in East Asia and like all imperialist powers it used a variety of means to subjugate new territories and peoples to its overarching political-economic project, including, but not limited to, violence, diplomacy, trade, international law etc. Actually, I’m really just repeating what Jonathan said above in comment 4, so I’ll shut up now.

  10. If it is question of mere semantics, why question the Korean view that they were invaded? Res Ipsa Loquitor! My “Le Robert” does include “massive” in two of its three definitions of an invasion. Japan’s 1894 landing in Korea may not have been June 6, 1944, but it was massive for its time, place, and context. But, setting aside the “massive” argument, the dictionary also defines an invasion as “the action of … expanding dangerously” (action d’envahir, de se repandre dangereusement). If 1894-95 was truly an “intervention”, the facts show that within 10 years it had become an invasion. To transpose the words of GEN Nelson A. Miles in Puerto Rico in 1898, they had come to “seize and hold…in perpetuity”. Like Miles, the Japanese undoubtedly believed that they were bringing the benefits of a superior civilization, and they were. There can be no doubt among reasonable observers that by any standards, the quality of life in Korea improved under Japanese rule, at least until the Pacific War. But that does not controvert the fact that Japan “invaded” Korea. Certainly 1 million Koreans, many of whom were alive in 1894, but all of whom had experienced 24 years of varied Japanese presence, intervention, and outright rule, ajudged that they had been invaded and unrightfully deprived of self-rule. One out of every 18 Koreans alive in 1919 took some part in the 1 March Movement. This, in the age prior to the internet and Korea’s “netizens”, underscores that generation’s view of the matter in bold letters. So, why deny that it was an invasion? Yes, the Korean extreme right and left wings are enamored of that term, but so what? In that point, they are correct by any reasonable interpretation of the term. We can hardly expect them to give a fair hearing to any arguments posed of Japanese benefits, if we deny their most evident truth.

  11. You guys are funny. It appears that you believe that if Japan did not invade Korea, then the occupation and domination of Korea is less sinister and more acceptable. That is not the case at all. The occupation and dominaltion of one governemnt over another people is what is evil, irrespective of the means of that occupation and domination. It is true that the means can be sinister in their own account, but the anschluss was not an invasion of Austria, but the Nazi domination was no less of an evil than the domination of Poland, which did suffer from an invasion. It is not a most evident truth; but invasion or no invasion is irrelevent to the misdeed of the Japanese government. The occupation and domination of Korea is what was wrong even if the means were legal and recognized by international protocol.

    China Mieville’s view of international law is irrelevent. International law was not the main factor in determining Japan’s agenda, but it was a supporting factor and I suspect is required for some rational narrative to describe the historical evolution of events for Japan’s descent into madness.

  12. Actually, Austria’s a weak example, since Austrians (mostly) welcomed the Anschluss (and were on the verge of voting for it). You could, though very profitably contrast the Nazi invasion of Poland with Soviet control of that same state….

    Otherwise, I agree entirely. For that matter, I agree with lirelou’s point that the Koreans have as much right to name the events as the Japanese (unless there’s some heuristic value in standardized definitions, in which case) and the events are clearly analogous to other contemporary events which seem less ambiguously to deserve the term invasion.

    There may be circumstances in which the legal definition matters (for example, if Korea had been an issue in the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal), but for the most part Owen’s right that international law has more to do with confirmations of power than with law as an objective and enforced guide to behavior, and John Sanders is right that international law is really mostly interesting in this context in the way in which it shaped Japan’s tactics and denied Korean power.

    So, we’re all right?

  13. I will say amen, but I will take exception to one remark of yours, Mr. Dresner.

    It is no doubt that Korean nationalists and Japanese revisionists can use whatever term they wish, but as historians, either professional or amateur, it may be a wee bit wiser to be more careful in the choice of our words. Let me explain.

    Here we have two sides, one saying there was an invasion and the other saying there was no invasion. Which is it? Not that what follows is scientific in any fashion, but it is how I begin my analysis. When someone says invasion, what comes into my mind. I think of the panzer divisions crossing into Germany or the aerial bombardment of Nanking (Nanjing) by by the Japanese(because I have seen the film clips). Or I imagine the army of Napoleon moving into Russia, or Caesar moving into Brittain, or Attila the Hun, or Genghis Khan, etc. What I do not think of as invading is the anschluss (you took me to task for this example, and I accept that reprimand; but I chose it not as an equivalent to psyche of the Korean people, but of the extra-legal methods of domination), or the Sudetenland, etc. I am almost tempted to classify the Moors taking dominion of Gothic Spain in this category (but I may need to think about that a wee bit more).

    So what? Why do I attach any imporance to this thinking now. Because I do not think my thinking in this regard is particulary idiosyncratic. When one comes across two sides, one side saying that there was an invasion and the saying there was no invasion, then one needs to study it more. And when that individual reads the narrative, then I fear the result adds creditability to the Japanese revisionists and takes away creditability from the Korean nationalists. And for what purpose, none that I can discern. It is not necessary to add every perjorative to an action we loath. The narrative itself should be sufficient. The occupation and domination of the a people against their will is sufficient.

    What I am about to write is my personal reflection only, please pardon my indulgence in this affair. Presently I am spending some time studying the history or ceramics in China, and taking note of the industrializing process during the post Tang period. I find this rather pleasant. But I have personal connections in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. I find myself in some despair or sadness about the feelings of many of my friends or colleagues in regards to the racism or whatever it is called. It is as if both the Koreans and Japanese are looking for ways to atone for the sins of their fathers. The Koreans because their fathers were not bullied nor slaughtered by some massive Japanese invasion; and the japanese because their fathers did bully and slaughter innocent people. The Jews and Christians know that only God can atone for sins, people cannot. And why not? Because we cannot change what has happened. All we can do is continue on with life, hoping that we can learn from our history as a human race. Let the gods do the atonement, let us do what is right and good and get on with life.

  14. Mr. Sanders. A postnote to your interest in ceramics. Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion” is interesting in that it touches on the Korean contribution to Japanese ceramics. One result of the Imjin Wars was that entire families of Korean potters were relocated to Japan. I had taken it for granted that the Japanese got their start in ceramics from the Chinese, which may be true, but it appears that the real leap forward in Japanese ceramics was due to what they learned from Korean potters. Anyway, if you’re into ceramics, the footnote might be of interest. Also, next time you’re in Seoul, you’ll note that the new Korean national museum is open for business. It’s free entry until the end of the year, and well worth visiting. On a positive note, collections donated to the museum by prominent Japanese collectors are fully identified and credited.

  15. Thank you, Lirelou, for the tip. When I go back to the States, I will see if I can pick up a copy of Turnbull’s book. I looked at Amazon and it was written there that his book is full of details. I like details. I purchased a copy of Mote’s Imperial China and on the way to China I read most of it. That was the book that I wanted when I was an undergraduate student. I was stuck with Fairbank’s book, skimpy on details.

    I find ceramics rather interesting, not only from the collector’s standpoint; but also from the technical development, from the economic impact to the social structure. I chuckled from something from Owen (I believe, perhaps I am in error), when he said in a previous thread that China was not a capitalist society. I really do not know what a capitalist society is, but I do know what a market structure will look like, and I am acquainted with manufacturing technology, etc. I find the needs and requirements of the ceramic industry in Southern Song to be fascinating in this way. They had production schedules to meet, quality issues, financing issues, shipping deadlines and international markets, and they did things that look like “lean manufacturing” within their context. Textiles would be similar.

  16. Mr. Sanders: I did a fair bit of Turnbull reading over the summer, with bits blogged here and here. Turnbull’s comments on ceramics were not particularly news, though: I don’t know how widely discussed it is in Japan but I learned about the Korean ceramics connection years ago, perhaps as an undergraduate.

  17. Mr. Dresner, thank you for your remarks about Turnbull. For a glimpse of the history of pottery in China, I began with Margaret Medley’s “The Chinese Potter” and go from there toward Korea and Japan. This is not because pottery began with China, but because it quickly mastered the technology and became the main source of production very early in its history.

    To change the subject, I enjoyed your notes on Turnbull’s books. You are a gifted writer and it is a pleasant experience reading your narratives. Your description of Turnbull’s “samurai invasion” is one more prompt for me to acquire the book. Your commentary on the Ninja book(s) brought smiles to my face. Debunking a myth is just presenting a narrative that explains what happened by whom and when it happened and how it happened, etc. The problem with the debunking is that the myth, propaganda of some form, is part of the mass entertainment. And those who are bing entertained are not necessarilly interested in the history. In other words, I am not certain that there is any connection between the history of some subject and the entertainment value of that same subject.

  18. Samurai Invasion also points several other Korean advances of the period. While Japanese swords were superior, the Korean compound bow and their artillery outranged their Japanese counterparts. Unfortunately, their military system and governance of the period had several fatal flaws, which allowed the Japanese to reign supreme in land battles. Turnbull underscore’s Admiral Yi’s claim to greatness. Unfortunately, the title alone is enough to turn off many Koreans, who assume that the inclusion of the term “Samurai” in the title evidences an admiration of Japan. In fact, Turnbull is fully sympathetic to the Koreans. The presentation of the book is likewise superb. Mr. Dresner is correct in that the Korean contributions to Japanese pottery is hardly news (other than for a non-Japanese specialist like myself). However when I alluded to it in several other blogs, I received replies from alleged specialists discounting any Korean contribution as greatly exaggerated. Yet, when I pulled up a few specialty blogs on Japanese pottery from Japan, those sites gave full credit to Korean potter’s contributions. Enjoy your research!

  19. The problem with Turnbull is that he took a very critical eye to the historical document from the japanese point of view. He admits this himself. However he took the Korean point of view at face value. He has no ability to read Korean. He used the diary of Yi Sun shin as a fact.

    Another comment about the potters, and pottery. Koreans looked at pottery makers as low people. Remember Korea had what the west would see as a caste system, and potters were on the bottom. In Japan they were put in a higher class and paid for their work. They were not kidnapped, anymore then the “comfort women” were kidnapped off the street.

  20. Back to the subject at hand.

    If you are from the west, can you imagine a teacher making you sign some letter to a foreign leader about an issue you have no idea about.

    Teachers have a lot of power over children. I think it was sick what she did. She should be fired.

  21. Yes I can imagine it (I’m from the ‘West’) and I can also imagine children understanding this issue very well if they are given enough information to make their own analysis. Whether or not you agree with her teaching methods (and the actual detail of those it not known to us here), the fact is that she has been victimised for opposing Japanese nationalism, the Japanese right and the attempts in that country to rewrite history.

  22. Also, out of interest, what evidence can you produce to show that the Chosŏn potters were not kidnapped? I would assume that it’s probably not possible to prove conclusively that they were actually taken against their will either, but to argue that they must have gone to Japan on the promise of better treatment seems a bit far-fetched (and your comparison with the comfort women is somewhat disturbing).

  23. “Teaching methods” is that what you (owen) call forcing children to sign a letter of appolgy to the leader of a foreign nation regarding what a city councelperson Koga says? Nevertheless, Koga seems right. Korea was not “invaded” as invaded is commonly understood. There were japanese troops fighing the Tonghak and the chinese, even some that murdered queen Min. But, I am curous to hear about the “beachhead” the Japanese invaders landed at for their invasion.

  24. Please see above for what I think is a useful and constructive discussion of these issues, particularly the one of invasion. I’m not able to spend lots of time discussing this here, but if I come across any interesting new developments in the case of Ms Masuda, I’ll be sure to post them at this blog and we can start the debate all over again…

  25. I do not claim to be a historian or even a member of what could be called academia. Myself and My Wife who was born in Korea but now is a US Citizen are writing a book about her family history, their struggle against the Japanese and later against the Communist oppression of the north. The Japanese may have issues with their ability to deal with the truth; however, that is not my problem. I would applaud this teacher and the bravery of her pupils in their need to apologise to Korea. It is this imperialistic position that we must try to overcome in our modern societies.

    One of my wife’s relatives was General Rho Pak-lin. I have his name written down as No, Paek-lin. He was sent to Japan during occupation and graduated from the Japanese Air Academy 2nd in his class, because he was Korean and not Japanese. Around 1919-1920 he was involved with a Korean Pilots school near Willows, in Glen County, California. Later when the school was closed after 2 bad crop failures he went to China. He tried to make the US government aware of the Japanese threat, but they were not interesting in what he had to say. He died in China trying to raise funds to support resistance against the Japanese. You could say he was a hero.

    History is such a thing that its only value is that we learn something from it. If we fail to remember the oppression of the Japanese imperialistic empire, we make a mistake. Society must be on guard against imperialism and the oppression of all people. This is why we want to finish our book so we can pass it on to those who will come after us, less we forget.

  26. A teacher may make students write a letter of any sort merely as practice in writing letters. Often, a teacher ill challenge students to write an opposing viewpoint to a controversial topic.
    There is nothing wrong with having students write these letters as part of a lesson on “how to write a letter”.
    However, if the letters were sent without administrative and parent approval, then there is a course for remedial action. Unfortunately, this looks to be more of a political punishment than a reaction to a poor decision in teaching.

  27. Hi…

    For those who think that her teaching style is somehow misguided or that she made a “poor decision in teaching”… she was not teaching a letter-writing class, she was teaching History. And teaching History is exactly, not to mention courageously, what she did! As a student of modern Asian History, all I know is that I would like for someone to tell me her email address so I can write to her and tell her that she’s my hero.

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