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Commentary: Japan's Shameful Revisionist History
The Japanese prime minister and his allies have rewritten painful chapters of the country's past—in an affront to the dignity of those who endured the coercive 'comfort women' brothels and the horrors of Nanking.
By Jeff Kingston
Special to Newsweek
Updated: 1:24 p.m. ET March 30, 2007
March 30, 2007 - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently rekindled a nasty controversy over Japan's dark past in Asia by questioning the degree of coercion used in recruiting the so-called comfort women: tens of thousands of mostly teenage Korean schoolgirls sent to frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers during the war. Hideaki Kase amplified these doubts, as well as questions about the Nanking Massacre, in his recent commentary (“The Use and Abuse of the Past," April 2, 2007).
Let’s deal with the history first. The events in Nanking have been painstakingly documented—including by numerous Japanese scholars. Mountains of evidence show that a horrible massacre and countless rapes did take place there and that the Imperial armed forces were responsible. Eyewitness accounts by Japanese soldiers, many written in their own diaries, have corroborated testimony by Chinese survivors. As for the comfort-women system, there is again plenty of evidence, accepted by most historians, that it was established at the behest of the Japanese military and was an institutionalized system of sexual slavery. Abe and Kase’s hairsplitting is an affront to the dignity of the elderly survivors and seriously undermines previous attempts by Tokyo to accept and atone for this gross violation of human rights.
For decades after World War II, the Japanese government denied that the problem had ever existed. But in 1993, in the face of mounting evidence, Tokyo issued the informal Kono declaration, admitting state responsibility for the comfort women, acknowledging that coercion had been involved, expressing remorse and promising to pay further attention to this blot on the nation's record. Then, in 1995, the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) was set up to pay compensation to and medical expenses for former victims (a total of $19 million has been disbursed for 364 women). The Japanese public contributed about $5 million to the AWF, but despite getting $31 million in government funds, it remained an awkward quasi-governmental arrangement that allowed the Japanese government to distance itself from the process. The small fraction of victims who accepted the compensation did receive letters of apology signed by the prime minister. But the vast majority of surviving comfort women turned down the money because they were encouraged to do so by the South Korean government, and many felt that the AWF let Tokyo dodge direct responsibility.
Now Abe has undermined the letter of the Kono declaration and the spirit of the AWF by questioning Japan's responsibility for its past crimes. After making his initial statements, he was quickly forced to retreat under a hail of criticism at home and abroad, and he subsequently voiced support for the Kono statement and expressed his remorse. He has now learned the hard way that he cannot unilaterally assert a history to his liking. Merely passing the buck to a study group of his Liberal Democratic Party, however, as Abe has now attempted to do, won’t achieve much; his backers embrace an unrepentant view of Japan's wartime past. They seek to rewrite history into a glorious narrative they hope will instill pride in their fellow citizens. But most Japanese have repudiated this attempt, and as the Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe has stated, minimizing Japan's wartime atrocities can only bring the country shame.
Abe seems to be bowing to his conservative base—they never accepted the Kono declaration and are committed to retracting it. These conservatives opposed the establishment of the AWF. They have also successfully opposed the inclusion of references to comfort women and Nanking in most school textbooks. Abe disappointed this base when he made fence-mending trips to South Korea and China shortly after taking office. He seems to have decided to try to curry their favor once more to combat his imploding poll numbers (he’s dropped from 80 percent approval in October 2006 to 37 percent today) ahead of elections for the upper house of Japan’s Parliament in July.
But Abe’s about-faces have pleased no one, and only make him look like a man incapable of providing leadership—one who favors expediency over principle. In the process he has damaged Japan’s relations with its neighbors and with the United States, where Congress now seems likely to pass a resolution critical of Japan's selective amnesia. The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Thomas Schieffer, has loudly condemned Abe's remarks. Tokyo is all alone on this issue.
The only way forward for Japan is to finally reconcile with its neighbors. This will require an unequivocal recognition of Japan’s responsibility for the war, for crimes such as the comfort-women system and Nanking, and sincere gestures of atonement. The victims should also be prepared to accept such gestures. The AWF has been a disheartening experience for the majority of Japanese who accept Japan’s guilt and favor compensation. A fitting requiem for the AWF, and a way out of Abe’s morass, would be for him to now establish an Asia Future Fund, modeled on the $5 billion German Future Fund, which was created in 2000 by the German government and partially funded by German businesses to compensate former slave laborers in Eastern Europe. Such a scheme has helped Europe repair past wounds and could have a similar effect in Asia. Now is the time, and here is a chance, for Abe to show that he’s up to the task.
Kingston is a professor of history and director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus.
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.