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The Campaign to Overwrite the Comfort Women Past

SNA (Los Angeles) — In 1993, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono made the most full-throated admission and apology acknowledging that Japan had coerced women across Asia into being sex slaves—euphemistically referred to as “Comfort Women”—for the Japanese military during the Pacific War. More recently, however, conservative politicians such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura have engaged in a campaign that is less about carving out a path toward reconciliation than to overwrite memories of an unsavory past.

The so-called “Kono Statement” of 1993 explained that the Japanese military was “directly or indirectly” involved in overseeing where these women stayed, and that the Japanese government study revealed that many women were “recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.” In its candor, this statement has become the exception, with later administrations reverting to variously vague and rehashed apologies for the wartime administrations’ transgressions.

On October 2, 2018, Mayor Yoshimura of Osaka wrote an open letter to Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, terminating the two cities’ sister city status over a memorial for Comfort Women erected as public property in Chinatown. The “Column of Strength” portrays three women from Korea, China, and the Philippines standing head-height above the ground and holding hands with their backs to one another. A fourth woman stands several feet aside at ground level, as a representation of Kim Hak-Soon, the first woman to publicly discuss her treatment.

The trend from the 1993 Kono Statement to this symbolic severing of ties between two of each country’s largest cities is not an obvious one if we observe that Japanese apologies about its wartime conduct had been improving from the 1950s through the 1990s.

In 1957, Japanese prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi, a former Class A War Crime suspect, told the Australian parliament, “it is my official duty, and my personal desire, to express to you, our heartfelt sorrow for what occurred in the war.”

It was a fairly paltry apology coming from the prime minister of a country that conducted vivisection in Manchuria, massacred in Nanjing, and used women as sex slaves during the Pacific War.

The change in tone from conciliatory to stubborn and defensive in Yoshimura’s statement expresses a different battle—the one for memory.

As those with living memory of the Pacific War die, those remaining without that experience are forced to rely on hearsay, education systems, and official government policies. Collective memory loses its potency when robbed of personal voices, pulled through the slush of time, or collapsed into a survey level text. This moment, more than 73 years on since the total collapse of the Japanese Empire, is one in which perhaps the Pacific War is no longer seen as the most critical event from our vantage point. And with minds turning in different directions, why wouldn’t the Japanese government take the opportunity to rewrite or undermine a shameful point in its recent past?

In what seems to have become an official style of grappling with Pacific War guilt, Yoshimura’s statement attempted to muddle widely agreed-upon facts and point the finger in other directions besides Japan. The letter is replete with “it wasn’t just us!”

Yoshimura writes in his opening that the words on the plaque of the Column of Strength “should consist of words equally applicable to all countries” in “raising international public awareness on the globally persisting issue of sex trafficking.” Throughout his letter, Yoshimura cites an August 27, 2015, open letter sent to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. One of those excerpts states, “It is also an undeniable historical fact that troops of countries around the world as well as those of wartime Japan used women for sexual purposes on the battlefield.” Indeed, section three of the letter is headed, “trivializing the issue by singling out Japan will not lead to resolving it as a global issue.”

Yoshimura’s point, as reiterated from a 2015 letter, reasons that if this issue is highlighted, it would only remove scrutiny for other past and current atrocities and lead, in turn, to a lack of reconciliation.

That line of thinking engages in a quiet cynicism: To consider a past wrong is to be unable to consider any other past wrongs, apparently.

Shouldn’t a Japanese admission of their role in coercing Comfort Women into sexual slavery achieve both a measure of reconciliation, and challenge those who would presume that some countries couldn’t be capable of such a thing? It is after all, a generally agreed-upon impression that Japanese people today value kindness and politeness. That impression from outsiders and the value that Japanese culture places on politeness lies in contradiction to such weighty crimes that are bluntly unkind and impolite. An admission could be both a testament to progress and affirmation of cultural values, but is instead an illogical smear.

The letter continues with Yoshimura again quoting his previous correspondence. He writes that according to a different open letter signed by hundreds of Western scholars on Japan, “there is disagreement among historians regarding the precise number of ‘comfort women’ and regarding the degree to which the former Japanese Imperial Army was involved.” Yoshimura’s letter continues that the inscription on the Column of Strength is an “unconfirmed, one-sided view.”

This is an obvious obfuscation that takes advantage of the historical process and the honesty of uncertainty in that process.

The hundreds of scholars that supported this letter acknowledged that “there is no easy path to a ‘correct history’” on account of many archival records being destroyed. Unequivocally, however, the letter continues that there is evidence “demonstrating the military’s involvement in the transfer of women and oversight of brothels.”

Yoshimura honing in on a key statement, claiming there is disagreement over the Japanese army’s role, is ultimately a misattribution on his part. The proceeding sentence states that whether there were tens of hundreds of thousands of victims, it would not “alter the fact of the exploitation carried out throughout the Japanese empire and its war zones.”

Yoshimura’s letter is bluntly incorrect and anti-historical. But there is a web of context that might inform why Yoshimura and many more Japanese officials are pushing against their country’s perceived pillory. Prime ministers since the 1993 Kono Statement have issued apologies more or less in line with Kono’s admission. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 statement ensured that Japan would “collate historical documents” about Comfort Women.

In 1995, coinciding with the fifty-year anniversary of the end of the war, the government of Japan helped establish the Asian Women’s Fund. (Initially, the Japanese government refused any compensation to victims, believing the postwar San Francisco treaties had settled the matter). The purpose of the fund was to provide compensation to those forced into bondage and support their medical care. The website now serves as a digital museum explaining the Comfort Women’s past.

The fund was criticized for its funding sources, however. It wasn’t entirely government funded. 565 million yen (about US$5.1 million) was raised from Japanese people, amounting to about two million yen (about US$18,000) for each of the 285 women that received that compensation in Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The government provided 770 million yen (about US$7 million) to pay for medical fees of these women and 79 others living in the Netherlands. A final amount of 370 million yen (about US$3.4 million) was spent building senior care facilities in Indonesia.

An apology was also signed by the prime minister of Japan and given to each victim, but these too were criticized. It was not considered an official apology, but a personal one. In fact, many women did not accept the reparations on account of the compensation being unofficial and merely state-assisted. The fund closed at the end of March 2007, having completed its work, but even Haruki Wada, the executive director of the fund, told the BBC that “we were not able to give the impression that the government was taking full responsibility.”

Earlier that same month, then and now-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said of Comfort Women, “the fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.” This contradicted the work of the Asian Women’s Fund, established by a previous administration of his own government.

But Abe is a conservative who has sought to repeal Article Nine of the Constitution that refutes war. While the announcement of the Asian Women’s Fund closure came two years prior, Abe’s statement, on March 1, a day upon which Koreans celebrate their resistance to Japanese colonial rule, and just weeks before the fund’s last moments, was nothing less than a slap in the face.

Despite Japan’s insistence that the matter has been dealt with, its leaders are distinctly attuned to the use of symbols and gestures—statues in San Francisco, announcements and statements made on historically significant days.

Then why the barbs to go with broadly positive gestures?

In 2012, South Korea repeated that Japan must acknowledge its role in coercing women to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military during the Pacific War. Shin Dong-Ik, South Korea’s envoy to the United Nations, said, “Japan’s legal responsibility has not been settled.”

Victims reiterated that Japan had not directly and officially compensated the former Comfort Women. Three years later in December 2015, a joint statement between the two countries appeared to have put the issue at last to bed, in no uncertain terms. Japan and South Korea confirmed that the matter was “resolved finally and irreversibly” provided that Japan followed through with an official US$8.3 million donation to South Korea that would provide the funds, in turn, to former Comfort Women.

That Japan has offered numerous apologies for its actions, and that some of its larger gestures like the Asian Women’s Fund have been refuted, is likely embittering. But the acknowledgement and corresponding compensation does not mean that the issue may disappear or be overwritten.

Yoshimura’s letter seems to clash with some official, and numerous historical positions. But perhaps in Yoshimura’s and many others’ eyes, the matter is “finally and irreversibly” finished, and therefore can be cast off. That seems charitable. Yoshimura’s severing of sister city ties with San Francisco more closely resembles Abe’s 2007 denial in its blunt disregard of facts.

Unlike Germany, Japan is widely perceived as having a poor record of dealing with its past in the 20th century—from school education to official policy. Some of its most striking symbols of wartime pain are those left by the catastrophe of the atomic bombs. The fundamental issue is not that Japan highlights its victim status at the war’s close. It did suffer immensely from unrestrained firebombing, the unique trauma of nuclear devastation, and the cracking of the jewel that was the Emperor’s fall from divinity. But it was both predator and prey, and it must be more full-throated in its admission that it was both.

Recent official statements, regardless of well-intentioned past statements and gestures, must not overwrite the past. A statement like Abe’s or Yoshimura’s, designed to undermine and ultimately collapse the foundation that war memory lies on, is insidious.

As time ticks on, and those who suffered first hand from sexual slavery during the Pacific War succumb to death, it is actually more important to raise up their voices, lest they be forgotten. Apology does not provide pretext for erasure; it provides pretext for reconciliation, and what may have been “finally and irreversibly” resolved may quickly prove the opposite if official statements seek to overwrite the past.

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