SHANGHAI – For years, China literally kept the tragic story of its “comfort women” underground.
Since 2007, the country’s only museum dedicated to the women forced to work in Imperial Japanese Army brothels has overflowed two cramped rooms in a musty basement on the campus of Shanghai Normal University.
“The government said it’s better not to do this research. Publishing was impossible. Why? For the sake of good relations with Japan,” said curator Su Zhiliang, a history professor who has spent over 20 years painstakingly documenting the women’s suffering.
But thanks to an 800,000 yuan (about $129,000) government research grant, the once taboo subject is about to be brought into the light.
The money has allowed Su to expand the scope of his work, and he plans to move the resulting exhibits to a capacious second-floor space, where the collection of photos and artifacts, including army-issued condoms, will have a much more public presence.
Su’s turn of fortune is not an anomaly.
As the world prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II later this year, Chinese scholars and activists say that there has been a substantial increase in government subsidies for documenting and publicizing the horrors of the Japanese occupation.
It is part of a “ratcheting up of government attention to the past,” according to Jessica Chen Weiss, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University who studies Chinese nationalism.
The shift comes as Japanese nationalists have increasingly questioned Japan’s responsibility for wartime crimes and rights abuses, including establishing “comfort stations.”
China has long called on Japan to “take history as a mirror” and accept greater responsibility for its role in the conflict, but as politics in Tokyo continue on a rightward drift, Beijing has taken matters into its own hands.
Among the beneficiaries, museums related to the war have received an infusion of new funds, with major renovations at the Nanjing Massacre memorial hall and another dedicated to Unit 731, a Japanese military research division that conducted biological experiments on prisoners in China.
The shift has been a windfall for Su.
The Chinese government has invited him to support its bid to place materials related to the comfort women on a UNESCO list of historically important documents and also granted him access to related files that have been off-limits since the government captured them at the war’s end.
“The government used to put a lot of pressure on our work,” said researcher and activist Tong Zeng from his Beijing office, where an entire room is dedicated to the over 10,000 letters he has received from victims of the occupation and their relatives.
In 1998, Tong was sacked from a government job for calling on Japan to pay compensation to the victims.
On a handful of occasions since, the government has forced him to leave the city during sensitive war anniversaries for fear that his rabblerousing would hurt “stability,” perhaps leading to disturbances like the anti-Japanese riots that swept China in 2012.
But in early 2013, Tong’s cause had a major victory. For the first time, a Chinese court agreed to hear a suit against two Japanese firms seeking redress for wartime forced labor.
The shift, he believes, is a simple warning to Japan that “they can’t distort the past.”
But there’s more at play than just historical reverence.
The changes are part of a “wider geopolitical strategy,” according to Rana Mitter, a history professor at Oxford University, who studies Sino-Japanese relations.
“China has been trying to find a balance in pressuring Japan” on issues like territorial disputes in the East China Sea while not “tipping things over the edge into outright confrontation,” he said.
Yale’s Weiss, who has closely followed Tong’s career, believes that Beijing may also be attempting to distract its citizens from domestic problems — such as environmental pollution and the growing wealth gap — by giving them “something to believe in and rally themselves around.”
Whatever the government’s motivations, Tong expects it will continue to come around to his point of view. In the meantime, he’s not going to push his luck.
“After 20 years of experience, I know where to draw the line,” he said.
Su agrees. A museum is one thing, he said with a rueful laugh, but “if I were to take survivors to demonstrate in front of the Japanese Embassy, we’d be arrested in a second.”