TV & Radio
No hiding from history
Published March 9, 2007
Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, wants his country to shake off that hangdog, defeated-nation mind-set and take its rightful place as a world power--with a real military, better relations with its neighbors and a seat on the United Nations Security Council. But Abe, who campaigned on a promise to rewrite Japan's pacifist constitution, must first break away from the crowd that wants to rewrite its past.
Fourteen years after Japan issued a halfhearted apology for the sexual enslavement of 200,000 women, some noodges in the U.S. House are working on a non-binding resolution urging Japan to apologize better. Abe says no. There's no proof the "comfort women" were coerced into providing sex for the emperor's soldiers, he says. And they were recruited by private contractors, he insists, not the military.
The surviving women, most now in their 70s and 80s, remember it differently. Some tell of soldiers storming villages and rounding them up at gunpoint. Others say they went willingly because they were promised real jobs, only to be forced into prostitution. Some Japanese soldiers have admitted they abducted women under orders from their military commanders.
But the government denied any involvement until documents proving otherwise were unearthed in 1993. An apology was issued and a reparations fund was established, but the money came from private sources. Some of the "comfort women" consider that a dodge and have refused to accept the money unless it comes from the government. Right-wingers, meanwhile, have been retreating from the apology since the day it was uttered. Lately they've talked about injecting a little equivocation into the 1993 statement.
Denying the past is nothing new for Japan, but the revisionists have been particularly brazen lately. Six years ago, right-wing scholars introduced a middle-school textbook designed to give students a more positive sense of their nation's history. It characterizes Japanese wartime aggressions as resistance to Western imperialism and shrugs off "The Rape of Nanking."
Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, regularly inflamed Japan's neighbors by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a monument to the nation's war dead--and its war criminals.
Abe's efforts to repair relations with the neighbors aren't helped by his backpedaling about the sex slaves conscripted from those countries. Taiwan, China and South Korea registered angry protests this week and urged Tokyo to accept responsibility. North Korea's government news agency said Japan should apologize "so that it can be trusted by the international community." And 40 aging Filipino "comfort women" demonstrated Tuesday outside the Japanese Embassy in Manila.
As the first Japanese prime minister born after World War II, Abe is more concerned with charting the nation's future than with redeeming its past. This explains his impatience with those who want him to account for an ugly and violent drama so old that most of the actors have died. But Japan's neighbors have understandably long memories about wartime atrocities. Abe is too young to remember. That doesn't mean Japan will be allowed to forget.