The ordeal of the women who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Armed Forces during the 1930s and 1940s is beyond dispute, as is the responsibility of the Japanese state for these deeds.
After the war, when preparations were made for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the Allied Powers knew that these atrocities had been committed, but for various reasons decided not to pursue them.
One reason was that American soldiers of the occupation enjoyed the brothel system the Japanese government had set up for them even as American authorities knew that women were being coerced into prostitution. The plight of women during and after the war was of little interest at the time.
Now, more than 60 years later, a branch of the U.S. government has come to the conclusion that the Japanese government should repent and apologize.
In January, Congressman Michael Honda introduced House Resolution 121, which passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on June 26. It expresses “the sense of the House of Representatives that the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ‘comfort women,’ during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II.” The resolution is now headed for passage by the full House.
On first impulse one would tend to applaud this motion, because the Japanese government has not been very forthcoming on this issue and, indeed, has taken pains to eradicate it from history textbooks and collective memory. That should be opposed for the sake of both historical truth and moral justice.
Most historians will agree that those in power in Japan today cannot be relied on when it comes to facing unpleasant facts of the past. The idea that history should be serviceable to national glory rather than actual fact is deeply rooted among them; the desire for a kindly retouch of the darker spots on Japan’s past record is strong.
So, yes, the Japanese power elite should be urged to acknowledge the facts. But there is a question as to who should be doing the urging. More precisely, there are two important questions that arise in connection with Honda’s resolution: (1) Should any government take another to task for its misdeeds and those of its predecessors? (2) What is the real function of House Resolution 121?
An answer to the first question is more difficult than it would seem, because it is of a general nature. The rationale for the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries is that interference is a threat to the international order and that it usually does more harm than good.
With regard to the kind of interference under discussion here — that is, a resolution intended to correct the behavior of another government — it must also be asked by what legitimacy does the House panel act? Is there a government beyond reproach? Do not they who condemn the wrongdoing of others elevate themselves to a position of moral superiority?
By way of introducing the resolution to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, committee chairman Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, commented that “postwar Germany made the right choice. Japan, on the other hand, has actively promoted historical amnesia.”
Why drag in Germany? Prior to and during World War II, horrendous crimes were committed in the names of the German and Japanese governments. Everybody knows that. But why not refer to past happenings closer to home?
Has an apology ever been issued by the U.S. government concerning the millions who lost their lives in Vietnam or those who still suffer from the aftereffects of Agent Orange? Hiroshima? Nagasaki?
Those past wars have nothing to do with the Japanese government’s recalcitrance toward the sex-slaves issue, supporters of the resolution will argue. True, but they have much to do with the moral authority of the body that passes the resolution, as do present wars.
If a government body that accepts on a daily basis the killing of innocent civilians at the hands of American troops in other countries censures another government about moral shortcomings, can one perhaps be excused for sensing something strange here?
Which brings us to the second question: What is the real function of the resolution? By passing a motion, albeit legally unbinding, that censures another government, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs asserts the moral right of doing so. The resolution is unlikely to have an effect on the Japanese government or on the lives of the survivors of sexual slavery.
Yet, in the age of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons and other potholes in the moral high road, passing judgment on others that goes unchallenged will be a large step toward the U.S. government reclaiming the role of global vice squad. On what grounds this role is assumed remains an open question.
Florian Coulmas is director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies, Tokyo.