Update: I have a new article in Slate's Future Tense about this topic: Non-English Editions of Wikipedia Have a Misinformation Problem
Last year I published a book called “Song of War" in Japanese. I wrote about former hospice patients I worked with as a music therapist in the US, all of whom experienced WWII. While writing this book, I did a lot of research online and noticed a troubling phenomenon in Japanese Wikipedia.
On the pages of particularly sensitive historical topics such as war crimes committed by the Japanese military, Japanese Wikipedia pages often exclude important information inconvenient to the Japanese public and/or include inaccurate and biased information. In other words, many of the articles whitewash war crimes by spreading disinformation. Here are a few examples.
The Battle of Hong Kong (香港の戦い) began on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor: December 7th, 1941. During the battle rape and massacre by the Japanese military took place, but you won’t find anything about that in the Japanese Wikipedia page. On the English page, there is a section titled “massacre” which mentions more than 10 incidents.
The next example is the page about comfort women (慰安婦). This is one of the most controversial subjects between Japan and Korea, in which the Japanese military used women as sexual slaves.
At the beginning of the Japanese page it uses the word, “baishun(売春),” meaning prostitution, implying that comfort women were not forced. This is what nationalists in Japan including former Prime Minister Abe have argued in recent years. Throughout the page it uses the words, “prostitution,” “rape,” “comfort women (ianfu)” without distinguishing the differences, which makes the issue obscure.
Again the English page on the same subject describes comfort women as “sexual slavery.”
This is another controversial historical topic in Japan. The first thing you notice about this page is its title.
The title is “南京事件'' meaning Nanjing Incident rather than Nanjing Massacre. It says “The Chinese side calls it the Nanjing Massacre, but the truth of the incident is still unknown.” This is yet another war crime that Japanese nationalists have tried to claim never happened.
Another strange thing about this page is that you’ll find no pictures of the massacre or events leading up to it, even though such pictures exist. Also, there is no summary section of the event. Wikipedia usually has such a section on the right side of the page where the highlights of the event are listed, such as the date, the number of casualties and a picture.
English Wikipedia (left)・ Japanese Wikipedia (right)
Some people may think that just as Japanese Wikipedia is whitewashing Japanese war crimes, English Wikipedia may be doing the same thing about American war crimes, for instance. However, if you compare the pages “United States War Crimes” in English Wikipedia and “Japan War Crimes” in Japanese Wikipedia, the difference is obvious.
The left image shows US war crimes. It has detailed information with pictures. The right image shows Japanese war crimes. It has no information except the list of incidents with no pictures.
Page after page I found examples of historical revisionism. You may think it’s just a few pages viewed by some people. Actually, the Japanese Wikipedia is very popular. It is the most visited language in Wikipedia after the English Wikipedia. On average it receives one billion page views per month. Much like with English search results every time you search any historical topics on the internet in Japanese, the first page that comes up at the top of the search result is usually a Wikipedia page.
In recent years we've seen the rise of nationalism in Japan. It's hard to tell which started first - historical revisionism in Wikipedia or in the society. But it's clear there is a feedback loop. For example, content from Wikipedia has been used as a source in historical revisionist books, such as “History of Japan,” a best selling book by Naoki Hyakuta, a nationalist writer known for denying Japanese war crimes during WWII. Wikipedia did not create historical revisionism in Japan, but it is accelerating it.
Why is this happening to Japanese Wikipedia? There are two main reasons.
English is recognized as an official language in a total of 67 different countries. It is spoken by 1.5 billion people around the world. People of different nationalities and backgrounds speak English. In contrast, Japanese is primarily spoken in Japan.
This means most people who edit, administer, and read the Japanese Wikipedia are Japanese. There is not as much diversity of background or nationality that you may find in the English Wikipedia.
A similar trend exists in other languages, such as the Croatian Wikipedia. It has received attention for promoting a fascist worldview and containing historical revisionism. It is also accused of whitewashing the crimes of World War II-era.
Because Non-English Wikipedia communities such as Japanese and Croatian tend to be much more isolated, they are likely to have inherent bias on certain topics.
Wikipedia was made with Western values, more specifically on Enlightenment values. According to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, it was built as an enlightenment project. Some of the important values of the Enlightenment are freedom of speech, using reason to arrive at truth, and freely discussing societal problems in the “public sphere.”
These are good values that most of us appreciate. But they are not necessarily practiced in the rest of the world. Take the concept of the public sphere, for instance. In the West people have been coming together to freely discuss societal problems and ideas for hundreds of years. On the contrary, Japanese people don’t discuss social problems in public. In fact we’re encouraged not to discuss controversial subjects in public for the sake of social harmony. There is no tradition of "public sphere" in Japan.
These cultural differences are reflected in the way people are using Wikipedia. For instance, over forty percent of Japanese Wikipedia editors are unregistered and anonymous, which is high compared to other languages. This makes the community similar to an anonymous message board rather than the public sphere Wikipedia is intended to be.
Another characteristic of the Japanese Wikipedia is that it has the lowest number of administrators per active user of all language editions. As of 2015 there are 14516 active users and only 41 administrators (0.27%).
Administrators have the ability to block users, protect pages, edit protected pages, delete pages, rename pages without restriction, and so on. This means that a handful of people within the Japanese Wikipedia have power over what goes on in the platform.
Japanese society is much more closed and hierarchical than Western societies, which is reflected in Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is hosted by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. If they decide to solve these problems, there are many ways to do so:
1) Only allow registered users to edit (This will probably not solve the problem but may discourage people from casually spreading disinformation)
2) Assume greater accountability over the content of the site
3) Increase collaboration between languages
Currently, Wikipedia exists in more than 300 language versions, but there is very little collaboration among languages. Wikipedia could place prominent notices for users when the content of an article in their language is very different from the content in articles of other languages on Wikipedia. This will let readers know that the content they see is either suspect or that they could learn more from other editions.
But these changes can’t happen unless the Wikimedia Foundation takes responsibility. When I wrote about this problem in my Japanese blog, I received overwhelming responses. Many said that they've been concerned about the historical revisionism on the Japanese Wikipedia, and some have tried to edit those pages unsuccessfully. One person wrote, "I've tried to fix these problems many times, but my edits are almost immediately erased. Now I've given up trying. Another wrote, "I think Japanese Wikipedia is becoming a convenient propaganda tool for those who want to control public opinions."
Many Japanese people are frustrated about what is happening to the Japanese Wikipedia, but there is very little we can do to change it. Wikimedia is an American foundation operating under American laws.
Here is the mission statement of Wikimedia posted on their website:
The Mission of Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.
When Wikipedia's pages are filled with historical revisionism, it’s not spreading educational content. It’s spreading disinformation.
Currently, Wikipedia enjoys great press coverage and is often considered to be a good example of what tech platforms can become. While that may be true with English Wikipedia, that’s not the case with Japanese Wikipedia.