On May 5, in an open letter in support of historians in Japan, an international group of 187 scholars (of which I am one) urged Japan to acknowledge and atone for the forced prostitution that occurred during wartime, stating: “Denying or trivializing” what happened to the “comfort women” is “unacceptable.”
There are many instances of sexual violence in wartime, but the letter, which has already been widely circulated on the Internet and has been the topic of numerous news reports, says, “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 scholars note disagreement over how many women were involved, but stress that “large numbers of women were held against their will and subjected to horrific brutality” in what was a brutal and “inhumane system.” The letter goes on to call for further research that is “free from government manipulation, censorship and private intimidation.”
I asked some U.S. academics about their perspectives on government censorship in 21st-century Japan. Thomas Berger, a professor of political science at Boston University and author of the 2012 book “War, Guilt and World Politics after World War II,” had various talks and his participation in an NHK documentary cancelled due to what he believes was a combination of self-censorship and pressure from senior management.
In one publication, partially funded by a government-sponsored NGO, Berger was asked to avoid the comfort women issue. He insisted that it be left in, but it came at a cost.
“I did compromise by not using the term ‘sexual slavery,'” he says, while asserting that would be something he would not agree to now. Taking issue with revisionist views, Berger believes there were tens of thousands of comfort women, including some professional prostitutes, “the majority of whom were coerced in one way or another to become comfort women and who had no possibilities for escape once they reached the front lines,” he says. Moreover, “there was a far larger pattern of sexual abuse by the Japanese Army involving millions of women, some of whom were kidnapped and kept as what we today would call sex slaves.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long lobbied for a more positive spin on Japan’s past because he thinks that the prevailing narrative unfairly stigmatizes Japan and that it is difficult to nurture pride in youth based on so-called masochistic history. Thus the government is now whitewashing the history taught in Japan’s schools by forcing textbook publishers to hue to new guidelines aimed at imposing patriotic education. As a result, the comfort women have disappeared from all but one of Japan’s middle school textbooks.
Critics point out that the purpose of history is not to nurture pride and that airbrushing history is not the basis for sound education. Furthermore, promoting a propagandized version of history that fails to address the horrors Japan inflicted throughout Asia from 1931-45 leaves students poorly prepared to develop critical thinking skills and engage with others in the region. How can Japan pursue its long-standing goal of internationalization if its students are left in the dark about its past and force-fed a valorizing and exonerating history that tramples on the dignity of Japan’s neighbors? Can this jingoism serve as the basis of what the government envisions as “Super Global Universities”?
Berger’s Japanese government contacts are “frustrated” by the current administration as well. “They think (the Abe administration) is pushing this issue in unproductive and unnecessary ways,” he says. “The campaign to stop the comfort women plaques in the United States seems to be a source of especial concern.”
Berger says some diplomats “see facing up to Japan’s past misdeeds as a vital mission, but feel that they were deeply burned by the Asian Women’s Fund issue and left vulnerable to right-wing criticism.”
(The Asian Women’s Fund was an attempt by Japan in 1995 to provide redress to former comfort women and promote reconciliation, but it failed for various reasons and was dissolved in 2007.)
One prominent right-wing pundit told me in March, “Our hearts ache for the suffering they (the women) endured” and we tried to help them, but “our sincere efforts” were blocked by “North Korean spies that infiltrated” comfort women advocacy groups in Seoul.
The pundit’s comments are an example of the level of delusion that prevails.
As a leading expert on war guilt, Berger is often approached for his perspective because he is known to be fair-minded.
It is crucial to “shift the terrain from debates about facts and morality, which I fear cannot ever be resolved, to discussions of U.S. and Japanese interests,” he says, using “comparisons from a broad range of cases — not only Japan and Germany (with its implied ‘good student-bad student’ message) — to make the case that many countries choose to deal with these issues when a confluence of domestic and international political pressures encourage them to do so.”
Japan should be encouraged on the basis of appeals to reason and interest, and “not by hectoring the Japanese to be more like the Germans.”
Berger says the pressure is indirect.
“No one has come up to me and accused me of working for the Chinese or threatened to prevent me from getting grants etc. from Japan,” he says. However, he thinks that revisionism is creating problems not only with China, but with fellow U.S. ally South Korea.
“It’s needlessly giving the Chinese government a propaganda victory,” he says, and risks stoking anti-Japanese sentiments in the States. This is because revisionist Japanese “attitudes are at best sexist and insensitive in the extreme, tantamount to Holocaust denial; at worst they represent a challenge to the foundations of the post-World War II human-rights regime.”
T. J. Pempel, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, is an influential Japan-hand in the United States.
“I have been approached by the local (consul general’s) office in which the agenda seemed to be to convince me of the ‘correctness’ of Japan’s positions on comfort women, the disputed Senkaku islands, and so on — usually with little regard for historical fact.”
It is interesting that a number of people I contacted for comments preferred not to be quoted. Some cited pending grants and concerns about reprisals as the reason, while others don’t want to become targeted or risk relationships in Japan that might suffer if they voiced their concerns. Privately, many U.S., European and Australian academics are scathing in their appraisal of the Japanese government’s more aggressive campaign to promote revisionist history, but are reluctant to go on record as saying so. Thus the 187 scholars who signed the open letter are the tip of an iceberg.
Many cite Japanese government contacts who share their views, but it is also apparent to them that some prominent Japanese academics and advisers have trimmed their sails to the prevailing winds under Abe and actively bad-mouth foreign journalists and scholars who are speaking truth to power. The new rules of engagement in contemporary Japan reflect less tolerance for dissent and academic freedom, and it is the Japanese public, journalists and academics who are paying the steepest price for this deepening chill.
Abe often speaks of the shared values that bind Japan and the U.S., but something is getting lost in translation.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.