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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Reactive Engineer: Japanese History Textbooks and the Construction of National Identity (1900-1926)


There is a vast literature on the Japanese imperial state’s role in fomenting a national identity through manipulating history in the early twentieth century. The general conclusions tend to depict the state as the coherent manager of the message, the leader who finished designing Japan’s national identity by the later years of the Meiji period (1868-1912). This study uses history textbooks published between 1900 and 1926 to argue that this representation overlooks the passive and reactionary elements of the Japanese state. An analysis of the changing portrayals of historical events in three editions of state-issued textbooks (1903, 1909, and 1921) and several non-state-issued textbooks yields a complex image of the Japanese imperial state, one that is less aggressive than previously assumed. The incoherent messages of early state-issued textbooks and the nationalistic clarity in private textbooks point to a tug-of-war relationship between private textbooks and state-issued textbooks, suggesting that the Japanese state was not the sole engineer of the representation of a “Japanese national identity.” An eloquent discourse on Japan’s national identity was not achieved until the Taishō years (1912-1926), when the state was forced to react to a society disrupted by riots by allying itself with messages promoted in non-state-issued textbooks. This study is part of the growing literature that diverges from the traditional argument of an omnipotent Japanese state, enhancing our understanding of Japanese society as we approach World War II.

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