‘Comfort women’ and a lesson in how history is shaped in California textbooks
After nearly a decade of delays, California educators released a draft guideline that will shape how history is taught to students across the state.
The nearly 1,000-page “History/Social Science framework” received little public attention and went largely unreported in mainstream media when it was announced in December.
But in multicultural California, that hardly means it went unnoticed.
In Japanese and Korean communities on both sides of the Pacific, the guidelines have been breathlessly covered in news reports and generated rival petitions signed by thousands on each side.
The brouhaha concerns two sentences describing what will be taught in 10th-grade world history classes about the women known as “comfort women,” who were coerced into sexual slavery in wartime brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II. The passage has been met with celebration among Korean American groups that have campaigned to bring attention to the issue in the U.S., and concern from some Japanese groups that consider it an unfairly negative portrayal of their home country.
Until recently world history focused mainly on European history in U.S. high schools. As the scope expands to other parts of the world, California classrooms are becoming battlegrounds in which recent immigrant groups wrestle over whether and how their ancestors’ stories are told to the state’s next generation.
In the years that the committee of educators has been working on the guidelines, Hindu and Sikh groups, Polish Americans and Persian historic societies have each come before the authors of the framework with requests on how their history is depicted.
The community groups who spoke at public meetings about their history far outnumbered teachers or educational professionals, said Nancy McTygue, who co-chaired the committee crafting the framework until last year.
“People were angry, people were pleading. People were excited, happy. Every emotion you can think of,” said McTygue, herself a former teacher who has taught high school history. “History is an interpretive discipline, and everybody’s got their own interpretation.”
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Assn., said history should get revised as scholars and educators learn more about the world, and that the increased number of voices getting involved would ultimately be a blessing for California students.
“The conversation is going to be a hell of a lot more interesting and more contentious, but that’s a good thing,” he said. “The conversation is going to reflect a wider perspective on the past, wider number of sensibilities.”
World historian Patrick Manning, a University of Pittsburgh professor, said the debates in California were a result of clashes between documented history and the communities’ collective memories, which inform questions of identity.
John W.I. Lee, a professor of ancient Greek and Persian history at UC Santa Barbara, reviewed the framework and submitted comments at the urging of a group of Persian parents. They were concerned that ancient history in the sixth-grade curriculum was told only from the perspective of the Greeks, demonizing Persians as “barbarians” without recognizing the political and cultural contributions of the Achaemenid Empire.
“When you have a state that’s as multicultural and multiethnic as California, of course it becomes an issue in the classrooms,” he said.
One of the parents, Jaleh Niazi, said she and others asked themselves if they were being biased by pride for their own culture. But after consulting scholars, they concluded there were historic inaccuracies to be corrected in depictions of ancient Persia and modern Iran, she said.
“We want our kids to take pride in what was good, and learn from what was bad,” said Niazi, a pediatrician who has two daughters in the 10th and eighth grades. “This is not only about my children. It’s important for California as a whole to know the world they live in.”
The new language on “comfort women” marks the first proposal to teach what has been a long-contentious political issue in East Asia in high school classrooms in the U.S. It has the potential to widely influence how textbooks address the topic.
The guidelines recommend that the subject of “comfort women” be taught to high schoolers “as an example of institutionalized sexual slavery, and one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century.”
The passages were incorporated into the draft framework at the urging of Korean community groups, authors of the guideline said. McTygue and Bill Honig, co-chairs of the History-Social Science subject matter committee, said they consulted the latest historical research and survivors’ testimony and concluded there was enough evidence for it to be taught in schools.
Honig said he believed the issue would be a valuable starting point for students to research and discuss the present-day problem of human trafficking.
“Kids should know that this is a problem and it’s going on. It’s not just in Japan and Korea during World War II, it’s a bigger problem,” he said.
After the conservative Japanese newspaper Sankei reported on the new framework in December, under the tag “History Wars,” an online petition on Change.org has collected more than 5,000 signatures protesting the description. The petition asks that the passages be amended to also describe comfort women as “well-paid prostitutes” and that they also served Allied troops in Japan immediately after the war.
The petition, which is predominantly signed by Japanese residents but also a few dozen Californians, says school textbooks should not be used as “propaganda advertisement.”
Honig, who was sent a copy of the petition, said he was surprised the language would be controversial, especially given that the Japanese government has apologized.
“In this situation I don’t think it’s fair to teach, when the conversation is still controversial,” said Miyoshi, 50, whose two younger children are in the fifth and sixth grades and will be taught under the new framework. He said he believed the issue was a matter between the two East Asian neighbors and had no place in California textbooks.
If the framework is adopted, Miyoshi said he would probably urge his children to do their own research rather than take in what they’re taught as fact.
“The U.S. has been drawn into this as a battleground for these memory wars,” said Daniel C. Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, who has studied depictions of World War II events in textbooks in the U.S. and elsewhere.
He said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the inclusion of comfort women in the new California framework, and said it showed a broadening global perspective in how history is taught here.
Because California, along with Texas, is the largest buyer of textbooks, state guidelines will probably reverberate elsewhere, he said.
Phyllis Kim, an activist with the Korean American Forum of California, which has vigorously campaigned to bring recognition to comfort women, said the new framework was a step toward solidifying Korean Americans’ place in California.
“When we immigrate, we bring our language, culture and history,” she said. “That’s the wealth that we bring into this state.”
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