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Japan court rules against atrocity cover-up

But continues to allow textbook censorship

August 29, 1997
Web posted at: 11:34 a.m. EDT (1534 GMT)
Saburo Ienaga

TOKYO (CNN) -- It was a battle once considered hopeless -- one man fighting for decades to stop the Japanese government from censoring accounts of World War II atrocities. But on Friday, Saburo Ienaga won.

Owning up to one of the darker chapters in the country's history, Japan's Supreme Court sided with the 83-year-old historian, ruling that the government acted illegally when it removed references to biological warfare experiments from a proposed history textbook.

But the court unanimously upheld the Education Ministry's right to continue screening all textbooks before they are used and remove anything it finds objectionable, including references to war crimes.

For 32 years, Ienaga has led a nationwide campaign to stop the ministry from censoring passages about Japan's wartime atrocities from proposed history textbooks, including his own.

Moments after Friday's decision, which also ordered the ministry to pay him a token compensation of $3,400, dozens of Ienaga supporters applauded in the Supreme Court.

Without his supporters, Ienage told a news conference, "a powerless person like myself could not have fought for such a long time."

"Today's ruling was not a complete victory," he said, "but ... the Supreme Court has admitted that textbook screening is illegal."

Japanese soldiers

Debating history

Fifty-two years after World War II, Japan is still arguing over the crimes its troops committed against Asian and Western soldiers and civilians during that conflict and others.

That is especially true when the issue centers around how much Japan's schoolchildren should read about atrocities such as the Imperial Japanese Army's slaughter of as many as 300,000 Chinese in the Rape of Nanjing (then known as Nanking) beginning in late 1937.

The justices ruled 3-2 Friday that the Education Ministry acted illegally in 1980 and 1983 when it removed from a textbook that Ienaga was writing a description of Japan's biological experiments on 3,000 people in northern China during World War II.

In some experiments -- believed to have been conducted by a germ warfare group known as Unit 731 -- subjects were operated on without anesthetics, injected with diseases such as typhoid and allowed to die without treatment.

The Japanese government has never acknowledged it conducted the germ warfare and a lower court had ruled there was not enough evidence to prove Unit 731 actually existed.

Nevertheless, some doctors later confessed they dissected victims before they died.

The disputed section on the experiments has since been restored to Ienaga's textbook.

However, the Supreme Court justices dismissed or rejected claims by Ienaga that seven other portions of his book had been illegally censored, including one that was about Japanese soldiers who raped Chinese women during World War II.

In 1982 Ienaga, along with neighboring Asian nations, forced Japan to apologize for describing its war-time role in Asia as an "advance" instead of "aggression."

But Friday's court ruling doesn't necessarily signal a new willingness to confront Japan's past.

A group that wants to strengthen rather than reduce censorship is gaining support. It wants to remove textbook accounts of the hundreds of thousands of so-called "comfort women" forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers in World War II.

Correspondent Pamela Burton and Reuters contributed to this report.


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