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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.
Helping to give back the power that is theirs
By ANGELA JEFFS
The Japan Times: Saturday, March 31, 2007
The two small rooms and kitchen occupied by Kalakasan have been bulging at the seams since early morning. First there was a regular staff meeting. In the afternoon, a group of Filipino women providing support to one of their members, came with a distressed mother and teenager. The youngster was raped by four young men.
WORKERS AT KALAKASAN help women in need. Pictured (from bottom left, clockwise) are Sister Elizabeth Kato, Ken Suzuki, Leny Tolentino, Mikihiko Yone, Donna Nishimoto and Yuri Miyagi.
"We are trying to persuade her to take proper care of herself so that she can regain herself and press charges," explains full-time staff member Leny Tolentino after the group had gone.
"Afraid and embarrassed, she wants to go back to the Philippines and try to forget it. But we want to help her stay and stand up for herself. That's our work here: to empower women who feel powerless.
Tolentino came to Japan as a lay missionary from the Philippine island of Catanduanes in 1988. She worked at the Yokohama Diocese Solidarity Center for Migrants (SOL) until it closed in 2002.
Concerned with the pastoral care of migrant women, who continued to seek help after the center closed, the idea for Kalakasan -- the Tagalog word for "strength," was born.
"We moved here, near Shin-Kawasaki Station, in August 2002. Initially neighbors were hostile; they complained about the constant comings and goings and the noise the children would make. But this has settled down now. With most of us (the full-time staff) living in the community, there is acceptance."
Sister Elizabeth Kato, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, has also been with Kalakasan since its inception. Her job, she says, is largely administrative. "Maryknoll Sister Missionaries tend to be very hands on," she laughs.
Since her first deployment in Japan in 1967, Kato has studied Japanese in Kyoto, worked at a girls school in Yokkaichi, and spent 10 years supporting day laborers in Sanya. She joined Kalakasan because she saw the need for abused migrant women to reclaim their inner strength that has been smothered by negative experiences in Japan.
Donna Nishimoto arrives, a recovering victim of domestic violence (DV) who is now a full-time staff member. Her story, together with four others, exemplify Kalakasan's process in the book Transforming Lives: Migrant Women Blaze a Trail Towards Empowerment, published last year in collaboration with the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism-Japan Committee (IMADR-JC).
But as Nishimoto explains, she is a victim no longer. "In the beginning I was just angry, angry not only at what I and my children had suffered, but everything and everyone. Though destructive, it was this anger that sustained me." Now she feels her anger evolving whenever she experiences injustice -- injustices that can be found in institutions -- police, immigration -- as well as personal relationships. "Now I can address my anger to the right person in the right way. I am turning my anger into empowerment." Supporting her son here, she is a familiar face at the National Diet building in Nagatacho. Here, she actively lobbies Parliament for changes in laws pertinent to migrant workers in Japan.
"I advocate, I network-- seeking to improve the DV law that in 2001 gave protection to Japanese victims of domestic violence. We worked to change this to include non-Japanese. Yes, it was shameful that the law was not inclusive."
Right now, Nishimoto and her group are lobbying for a national network to support abused migrant women more fully. Women tend to seek support initially when in crisis, either at home or at work. Once the initial crisis has been overcome, they need continued support to rebuild confidence and identity.
After Crisis Intervention (Leny is one of the workers who face-off abusive partners and/or help couples find common ground) comes Follow Up Care, including home visits, healing sessions and training.
Integral to this program, says Nishimoto, are monthly meetings, parenting, theater and dance projects, massage and reflexology sessions, English classes, summer camps, seminars and involvement with International Day on Nov. 25 that marks Violence Against Women.
It is at this moment that part-timer Ken Suzuki -- the only male staff member -- arrives with three or four children in tow, to join those drawing quietly around a table in the second room. Here a blue wall-hanging has the words "Kalakasan -- Migrant Workers Empowerment Centre" marked out in white phone buttons.
"I used to work for a phone company," Nishimoto says, grinning. "It was the children's idea to glue them on." Suzuki, the women point out, won the Kirara Award back in 2003. Awarded by the Kanagawa Coop (a local cooperative movement in the prefecture), he donated the half million yen prize to expand support for Kalakasan.
Producing a statistical summery of 2006, Kato notes that over the year the center helped 286 women, 37 suffering domestic violence, 39 with marital difficulties, 37 involving children (including custody and visiting rights), 23 needing medical advice, 63 with visa issues, five with work-related problems, and 41 Others, including the death of a husband, debts, arrest and detention, housing, and unpaid wages.
In addition, Kalakasan is creating initiatives to further integrate into the community. "For example," says Tolentino, "our children are involved with Agri-garden, a community project near the local JR station where citizens are creating an organic garden and a natural pond as an attempt to reclaim the natural environment."
The women share their leadership training and social justice programs with Filipino women in trouble as far away as Hiratsuka, Shizuoka and Hamamatsu.
Last September, a group of Korean women, led by a Korean married to a Japanese man, visited the center. Staff have since heard that an organization similar to Kalakasan has been set up in South Korea.
Tolentino again: "Apparently there are increasing problems faced by migrant workers married to Koreans or working as entertainers. Their situation is very similar to that faced in Japan."
Tolentino's 'River of Life' project is especially close to her heart. Women gather to tell their stories and share their experiences in workshops, to gain strength from one another.
"We reclaim our creativity by acting out the realities of our lives in paint, song, dance and theater. Our one-day experience of gender-sensitivity was like a gentle brush stroking our skin. We need gentleness. It helps us feel strong again."
KMWEC, KKF Haimu #210, 1-34-8 Kita-kase, Saiwai-ku, Kawasaki-shi 212-0057 Phone: (0440 580-4675; fax 044-580 4676. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org