A group of 187 scholars of Japanese and East Asian studies have called on Japan to accurately address its history of colonial rule and wartime actions, particularly the “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

In a letter sent Monday to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the group, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Dower, and Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus of history at Harvard University and author of the 1979 best-seller “Japan As No. 1: Lessons for America,” said the ability to celebrate 70 years of peace between Japan and its neighbors was being undermined by the comfort women issue.

“This issue has become so distorted by nationalist invective in Japan as well as in Korea and China that many scholars, along with journalists and politicians, have lost sight of the fundamental goal of historical inquiry, which should be to understand the human condition and aspire to improve it,” the group, mostly from the U.S. and Europe, said.

Conservative and right-wing politicians, academics and media in Japan, as well as Abe, have long insisted the Japanese government and military was not directly involved in recruiting the women and did not force them to serve in comfort women stations.

“The ‘comfort women’ system was distinguished by its large scale and systematic management under the military, and by its exploitation of young, poor, and vulnerable women in areas colonized or occupied by Japan,” the letter said.

“Much of the archive of the Japanese imperial military was destroyed. The actions of local procurers who provided women to the military may never have been recorded. But historians have unearthed numerous documents demonstrating the military’s involvement in the transfer of women and the oversight of brothels,” it added.

Estimates of the number of comfort women vary between 20,000 and 200,000, a wide gap that has fueled anger and mistrust between Japan and South Korea in particular.

“Historians disagree over the precise number of ‘comfort women,’ which will probably never be known for certain. Establishing sound estimates of victims is important. But, ultimately, whether the numbers are judged to have been in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands will not alter the fact of the exploitation carried out throughout the Japanese empire and its war zones,” the letter said.

The letter concluded by noting that in his April 29 address to the U.S. Congress, Abe spoke of the universal value of human rights, of the importance of human security, and of facing the suffering that Japan caused other countries.

“We applaud these sentiments and urge the Prime Minister to act boldly on all of them,” the scholars said.

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