How Pearl Harbor Is Taught in Japanese Schools

Have you ever wondered how the Pearl Harbor attacks are taught in Japan? What do Japanese students really learn about Pearl Harbor, anyway? It’s a fascinating topic of conversation, frequently presented to the international community over at Reddit, among other online forums. 
Below are a few first-hand accounts – as well as a few accounts from teachers – about how the Pearl Harbor attacks are handled in Japanese schools. As Redditor ywja notes, Japan is not a monolith, meaning this or any other brief account is by no means what “the Japanese” think or feel about the topic. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to hear first-hand how the topic is covered.

The ‘Why?’ Is Glossed Over

University student Mayako Shibata told McClatchyDC in 2014 she “can’t remember any class where she learned why the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. She did learn, she said, that some in the government opposed it.” The article goes on to say what most Japanese students do know “places the attack, which involved more than 300 aircraft, two bombing waves and six aircraft carriers, in the context of the many wars that were going on at the time.”

A Preemptive Strike Was the Only Option

Japanese Reddit user Karmago related this lesson in 2014: “External pressures placed upon Japan by the US such as the formation of the ABCD line (American, British, Chinese, Dutch) as well as the trade and resource embargoes that the US imposed on Japan were seen as acts of aggression. This led Japanese military leaders to believe that there was no other option but to launch a preemptive strike on the US.”

It’s Part of a Much Larger Picture

Japanese Reddit user ywja shares the role of the Pearl Harbor attack in Japanese lessons about WWII: “Japan had been fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War since 1937. Of course Pearl Harbor was a huge event. But in order to understand the Far East situation at that time, one needs to go back to 1937, or to the Manchurian Incident in 1931, or even further. This is the standard narrative, and the clash with the US is sort of the final stage of the war. That may be one of the reasons why Japanese don’t put so much emphasis on Pearl Harbor. It’s not an event that symbolizes the whole experience.”

It’s ‘Less Than a Paragraph’

From Japanese Reddit user Centricflow: “The attack on Pearl Harbor was taught less than a paragraph (from the textbook in 2002). Just stating the event, when, where, and why briefly. And then they had the black and white picture of U.S.S. Arizona surrounded in black smoke, tilted sideways, and sinking in the ocean.”

It’s All About the Oil

Redditor kylejn says a Japanese high school history class taught the following: “We didn’t talk about Pearl Harbor specifically but the war in general. In a nutshell, the Japanese believed that the three superpowers in the world were going to boil down to the Soviet Union, the United States, and Japan. When the US cut off oil shipments, Japan figured that they would need to attack and needed to do it sooner rather than later. Hence, Pearl Harbor and Japan’s attack on the United States.”

Consequences Are in the Spotlight

Redditor tophmcmasterson gives some perspective from behind the desk: “I’m an English teacher at a public JHS and elementary schools in Japan, and the emphasis is definitely more on the bombs and the consequences of war and why it should be avoided.”

Teachers Were ‘Distraught’

From Redditor kneeseekingarrow: “I lived on a Japanese island called Okinawa, but on a military base. Our school was off base, and the Japanese women taught it as if they were very saddened and distraught about the whole incident. A lot of Japanese didn’t [think] Pearl Harbor should have happened.”

The Attack Happened on December 8

A minor note, but worth mentioning, from Redditor ywja: “The biggest difference is that this attack happened on December 8, 1941 in Japan time and people remember it as such.”

The Lessons Are Basically ‘US-Approved’

From teacher and Redditor cheetahbear: “I’m an English teacher in Japan and was invited to a lecture (my school really wanted me there) about this. The teacher spelled the problems that led Japan to war, then led a discussion. It ended with the children agreeing, that Japan had no right to wage war, and that the US acted rightly, having no choice but to retaliate. In another, less formal setting, a teacher/friend gave a quick talk to about 6 children, lauding MacArthur and explaining why declaring war on Japan was the appropriate response and why peace is so important. In short, the ww2 lessons would be US approved. At the same time though, on a subtle level, it seemed rehearsed. Not 100%, just enough to give a sliver of doubt.”

‘Very Objectively, with Zero Emotion’

Redditor AsiaExpert, after translating a modern Japanese textbook: “It translates simply as ‘on 1941, December 8th [this was the time it was in Japan during the attack], the Japanese task force attacked the American Pacific Fleet in port at Hawaii with the intent to deal a devastating blow. This was an attempt to acquire control of the seas. Simultaneous to the attack, Japanese forces launched attacks against British forces in Asia and moved with the intention of seizing Singapore.’ It was written very objectively, with zero emotion.”

It Is ‘Just a Footnote’

Quotes from Japanese visitors to the Pearl Harbor memorial regarding what they were taught about the attack, via The New York Times, December 7, 1985, “For Most Japanese, Pearl Harbor is Just a Footnote”:
”People aren’t taught about this in school.” ”Wars are often full of treacheries like that, aren’t they? I don’t think many people of my generation [in their 20s] think about the war anyway. It is only one piece of knowledge for the entrance examination.” [T]here is a very popular saying, ‘Let the past drift away with the water’ that fits Japanese sentiments.” ”Japanese should remember Pearl Harbor, and Americans should remember Hiroshima.”