Nineteen U.S.-based historians have protested attempts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his administration to suppress statements in U.S. and Japanese history textbooks about the “comfort women” who suffered under a brutal system of sexual exploitation during World War II.

In a letter to the editor in the March edition of “Perspectives on History,” a scholarly journal published by the American Historical Association, the group acknowledges that historians continue to debate whether the numbers of women exploited were in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands, and what precise role the military played in their procurement.

“Yet the careful research in Japan, especially by (Chuo University professor) Yoshiaki Yoshimi, of Japanese government archives and the testimonials throughout Asia have rendered beyond dispute the essential features of a system that amounted to state-sponsored slavery,” the letter says.

The group warns that, as part of their efforts to promote patriotic education, Abe and his allies are on a quest to eliminate references to the issue in textbooks.

In November, the Foreign Ministry told the Japanese Consulate in New York to ask publisher McGraw-Hill for changes in “Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past,” its world history school textbook co-authored by historians Herbert Ziegler and Jerry Bentley.

The ministry was upset over what it said were “grave errors and descriptions that conflict with our nation” on the issue of the comfort women, without specifying what errors it was talking about.

However, a passage in the book says the Imperial Japanese Army forcibly recruited up to 200,000 women to serve in military brothels, an assertion that Abe and Japan’s right wing have long rejected.

Japanese mainstream historians say it is impossible to determine the exact number, while Yoshimi has estimated there were at least 50,000 comfort women.

Last month, Abe joined the debate, saying he was shocked at the McGraw-Hill textbook. He pledged to step up international efforts to push his administration’s view of history.

The part about the comfort women was written by Ziegler, who teaches modern European history at the University of Hawaii.

McGraw-Hill rejected the ministry’s request, saying that scholars are aligned behind the historical facts of the issue.

“We support the publisher (McGraw-Hill) and agree with author Herbert Ziegler that no government should have the right to censor history. We stand with the many historians in Japan and elsewhere who have worked to bring to light the facts about this and other atrocities of World War II,” the letter says.

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