Bangkok Post, Tuesday April 24, 2007
OPINION / INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
Japan's revisionism imperils Asian ties
The government claims that comfort women were not coerced to serve in military brothels during WWII
By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
One reason why the "comfort women" issue is so soul-searing in China
and Korea is not because it posits the existence of prostitutes in
times of war, but because girls and women who were anything but
prostitutes were taken from their homes and coerced to serve in
Japanese military brothels known as "comfort stations" during Japan's
conquest of the Asian mainland.
When historical revisionists claim, against ample evidence to the
contrary, that comfort women were not coerced, they not only make a
mockery of military-inflicted suffering and trauma, but they imply
that the victims of rape were prostitutes.
If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, then calling a woman
who is not a prostitute a whore has to be one of the world's oldest
insults. That many of the World War II sex-slaves _ euphemistically
known as comfort women _ were non-Japanese adds a racial dimension to
this unacceptable slander.
Even the deepest wounds may be healed if reconciliation is part of the
process. But if soul-scarring injury is denied, mocked or trivialised,
painful old wounds are re-opened afresh and historic closure is
The systemic, serial raping of the comfort women is revisited every
time a prominent Japanese politician decides to deny or belittle this
ugly chapter of Japan's wartime history.
Motivations for denial range from a legalistic stance based on an
unwillingness to offer serious compensation to the intellectually
dishonest pretence that Japan is not capable of such brutality. The
hurt is not so much a matter of Japan's failure to compensate as the
failure to atone documented wrongs.
Six decades after war's end, European leaders are sufficiently
cognisant of history's hard lessons to pass motions criminalising
Holocaust denial and trivialisation of mass suffering. Why then does
Japan's current government, which prides itself on being as advanced
as Europe in terms of its democratic system, free press and defence of
human rights seem hell-bent on going in quite the opposite direction,
denying history and hurting its historic victims anew?
Given the rising rates of crime and social apathy in Japan, the
revisionist intent is said to be grounded in an understandable, albeit
ill-conceived programme to promote national unity through love of
country, but this does not give adequate consideration to how
self-serving deletions, denials, revisions and endless quibbling, all
in the name of enhancing the Japanese government's stature in the eyes
of its own citizens, serves to cancel out past apologies and take away
what vestiges of dignity might be left to Japan's victims.
Denying the facts regarding comfort women is not a matter of ancient
history or an abstract issue but the slander of real-life victims,
such as the hapless girls snatched from the streets and placed in
brothels by Japan's Special Naval Police, as documented by the
Tokyo-based Centre for Research and Documentation on Japan's War
And there are pressing humanitarian considerations, for some of the
former comfort women are still alive, and all of them left behind
families broken and scarred by war. To deny the reality of those who
grievously suffered in order to make wartime Japan look better than
the facts bear out, is to elevate the status of victimisers at the
expense of victims, to make a hero of one's battle-scarred grandfather
by making a whore of someone else's grandmother.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will soon visit Washington where he
will be received with the protocol and respect as one of America's
most steadfast allies, but he needs to clarify his government's drift
away from the core tenets of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and
Japan's Peace Constitution, two key documents upon which Japan-US
amity and Japan's relations with the rest of the world are based. If
the current revisionist campaign goes unchecked, it threatens to upend
the peace treaty and thrust the entire post-WWII political order
represented by the Allied defeat of fascism into question.
Before assuming power, Mr Abe was well-known for his
hyper-nationalism, whether it be revising textbooks, pushing to
abandon the peace constitution, commemorating war criminals at
Yasukuni Shrine or dismissing the plight of comfort women. If as prime
minister, he continues to promote this hardline revisionist plank with
the symbolic power of the Japanese flag and instruments of the state
behind him, then Japan will find itself dangerously isolated not just
in East Asia where historic tensions remain palpable, but with the
rest of the world which has long since put World War Two fascism in
the history bin where it belongs.
The way Japan's right-wing media has vilified US congressman Mike
Honda for trying to clear up the comfort woman issue reveals the
choke-hold which belligerent revisionism has upon political narrative
When hyper-nationalists stir the pot with racist sophistry, textbook
white-washing, Nanjing massacre denials and blanket refutation of
documented fact, they set Japan apart not only with former victim
nations such as Korea and China, but victor nations such as Britain
Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, thrice victorious in the polls, has
mocked foreigners, most especially Chinese and Koreans, with racial
epithets pungent enough to get an American radio shock jockey like Don
Imus fired. And members of Mr Abe's cabinet have out-done one another
in recent months with foot-in-the-mouth quips such as "women are
child-bearing machines," "Japan belongs to the Yamato race," "Korea
was better off under Japanese rule," and the general vilification of
foreigners as criminals.
To say, as Mr Abe did recently, that the sex slaves known as comfort
women were "not coerced" is to engage in subtle chauvinistic sophistry
that cuts close to the history-denying hate speech that is becoming a
regular feature of Japanese political discourse.
It's as if the losers of the last war have regrouped to fight it
again, a revisionist fantasy that has been obsessively explored in
Japanese pulp fiction, film and manga.
Taken as a whole, the history-denying campaign of Japan's xenophobic
right brings to mind Holocaust denial; it is not just hateful and
hurtful, it is plain wrong.
Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.