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Fifty Japanese scholars attack McGraw-Hill, U.S. academics on ‘comfort women’ issue

by Jesse Johnson and Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writers

In the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over history, a group of 50 Japanese scholars has chided the author of a U.S. textbook and his backers in academia for “factual errors” that the group claims no Japanese scholar would support.

In a letter in the December edition of Perspectives on History, a scholarly journal published by the American Historical Association, the group defends a government move to request revisions to a high school history textbook published by U.S. publisher McGraw-Hill.

The book contains a section covering the “comfort women” issue, which the group dissects. The move is a rebuttal to a March statement by 20 American historians slamming a push to “censor history” by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The term comfort women is a Japanese euphemism referring to women and girls who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

The December letter calls out the American academics and claims that they would have difficulty finding a single Japanese scholar to support their position.

“The title of the statement of the 20 American historians . . . is ‘Standing with Historians of Japan.’ However, even Professor Yoshiaki Yoshimi, whom the 20 American historians hold in high regard in their statement, could identify multiple factual errors in the McGraw-Hill textbook, if he were asked to do so,” the statement says. “We are afraid that, in point of fact, the 20 American historians would never be able to find a single Japanese academician with whom they could stand. It would be as if they were standing with Japanese ghosts.”

Asked to respond, Yoshimi, a professor of history at Chuo University in Tokyo and a leading researcher on the issue, declined comment, saying he is unfamiliar with the content of the textbook and in what context the disputed phrases occur.

Eiji Yamashita, a professor emeritus at Osaka City University who spearheaded the group’s rebuttal, alleges that the textbook’s section on comfort women, comprising just 26 lines, contains eight mistakes. These include the phrases “the army presented the women to the troops as a gift from the Emperor” and “At the end of the war, (Japanese) soldiers massacred large numbers of comfort women to cover up the operation.”

“These two episodes are unsupported and fictional,” Yamashita told The Japan Times, adding that he believes the phrase “A Gift from the Emperor” might have been based on a novel titled “A Gift from the Emperor,” written by Therese Park, an author of Korean descent.

He also criticized the 20 American historians for the nature of their reaction: Instead of responding to the Japanese government’s call to correct the information, they took it to task for trying to do so.

“As scholars, they should have verified (the information) when they were informed of those mistakes,” Yamashita said.

Michiko Hasegawa, a professor emeritus at Saitama University and a governor at public broadcaster NHK, said she signed the protest letter because it was “meticulously” researched.

However, she said, the statement was not an attempt to impose her group’s views about comfort women on the American side. Rather, it was aimed at pointing out and criticizing the textbook’s mistakes, while also urging the American historians to correct errors in the historical record.

“Conveying information that contains even one mistake to younger generations is just inappropriate,” Hasegawa said. “There’s nothing more or nothing less to it.”

The American side, on the other hand, says its focus — as well as that of the letter — has always been on the larger issue of academic freedom in Japan and what some see as attempts to whitewash history.

“We do not make claims about the content of the textbook,” Alexis Dudden, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and the main organizer of the group, said in an email. “Our concern was and remains with two basic features of historical research in an open society such as Japan.

“First, academic freedom; and second, the repression and denial of a proven international history — the brutal mid-20th century system of state-sponsored sexual slavery throughout the Empire of Japan.”

In January this year, textbook co-author Herbert F. Ziegler said representatives of the Japanese government had contacted him to demand a rewrite.

Andrew Gordon, a professor of history at Harvard University’s Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and a signatory to the March statement, said this is what the U.S. statement centered on.

“(It) objected to the intervention of the Japanese government, which sent its officials directly/uninvited/unannounced to the office of the textbook author, demanding deletion or correction,” Gordon said in an email.

Meanwhile, the Japanese statement goes on to say that the American side has “never mentioned” the U.S. government’s Interagency Working Group, which worked for years to locate and recommend for declassification secret U.S. records relating to Nazi and Japanese war crimes, paying special attention to records related to areas such as the comfort women issue.

The IWG’s April 2007 final report stated that it could not find any documentation among the formerly classified papers it researched to show that the Japanese government had committed war crimes with respect to the comfort women issue.

However, a set of introductory essays entitled “Researching Japanese War Crimes” released by the IWG in 2006 just ahead of the final report makes specific note that “at the close of the war, Japanese authorities hid or destroyed much evidence of the country’s war crimes.” In this, it cited the vast disparity in the numbers of surviving documents that relate to war crimes committed by Nazi Germany as opposed to those of Imperial Japan.

According to the IWG’s findings, while there were nearly 8.5 million documents relating to Nazi war crimes, there were a mere 142,000 deemed relevant to Japanese war crimes.

“While it is standard practice for governments to destroy evidence in times of defeat, in the two weeks before the Allies arrived in Japan, various Japanese agencies — the military in particular — systematically destroyed sensitive documents to a degree perhaps unprecedented in history,” Daqing Yang, one of several independent historians employed by the IWG, wrote in an introductory essay.

Still, Yoshimi, the Chuo University professor, stressed that not all the documents related to the issues have been destroyed.

“There are many records that have been left and they may serve as evidence,” Yoshimi said. Victims’ testimonies as well as memoirs written by former soldiers should also be considered as historical evidence, he added.

Yamashita, however, argued that victims’ testimonies are often unreliable, citing a widely criticized practice in Japan where court rulings are highly dependent on suspects’ confessions, often made under made duress, which in turn often lead to false accusations of crimes.

Yamashita said while the victims have not sued any specific perpetrators, they have used their public statements to try to impose “responsibility” on a foreign government. This, he claimed, makes their testimony “even less reliable.”

“Some of those who have testified might be telling the truth, but how can it be confirmed?” Yamashita asked.

Dudden disputed this, calling the group’s latest push an effort to “will away the living victims of history.”

“There are 46 remaining registered South Korean survivors of the Empire of Japan’s state sponsorship of an egregious human rights crime: sexual slavery,” Dudden said. “These surviving women have been acknowledged as ‘real’ by prior Japanese administrations as well as countless Japanese historians, journalists, and others concerned with this history.

“These women are not ghosts; rather, they are human beings who bear physical witnesses to the history they endured.”

As for the Japanese group’s claims that the U.S. scholars may have wilfully ignored the IWG report’s final findings, Dudden called this a nonstarter.

“This report had nothing to do with our discussion — it is alarmingly apparent that the ‘Gang of 50’ did not even bother to learn that some of our signatories were part of that 2007 commission’s expert assistance,” she said, describing the Japanese historians who put their names to the statement.

Today, Dudden said, the plight of the comfort women has particular relevance.

“Under what conditions they became involved, in whose name and for what purpose, and how they disappeared are issues that continue to hold deep significance precisely because we need to learn from this history in order to stem its recurrence today and in the future,” she said.

“I think of Boko Haram and (the Islamic State group’s) current use of sexual slavery as a weapon of war critical to why denying away historical evidence is so deeply retrograde.”

Dudden said the current climate in Japan raises questions about continued access to the historical record.

“Will these materials and these historians be declared ‘state secrets’ under Abe administration-related efforts such as this letter? Will it become possible in today’s Japan to declare that this history did not happen, when many of us in Japan and around the world possess historical materials that prove it took place?”