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Chinese to be buried alive by Japanese soldiers during Nanking Massacre. In 2008, another photo which presents the same scene was discovered in Japan verifies its authenticity[1]. 《日寇暴行实录》配图标题:南京寇军活埋我同胞之惨状 Datum 1937/38 Quelle First published in: A Faithful Record of Atrocity of Japanese Troops, 1938 Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-U1002-502 / CC-BY-SA
Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-U1002-502 / CC-BY-SA

Comfort women

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
March 18, 2013

Japan believes it has apologized sufficiently for the excesses of its military in the first half of the last century, but its neighbors feel the government in Tokyo continues to gloss over the atrocities.


Japan's neighbors feel that the right-of-center government is again planning to gloss over the atrocities wrought upon the rest of Asia in the 20th century. The issue of "comfort women", in particular, is likely to be the first place any revisions to history are likely to be seen, argue Tokyo's detractors.

South Korea and China are stepping up their demands that Japan face up to its sexual enslavement of thousands of women - euphemistically known as "comfort women" - across large parts of Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. Representatives of the two governments told the United Nations' Human Rights Council that it was high time Japan apologized and provided compensation.

Choi Seok-young, the South Korena ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the council on Thursday (14.03.2013) that, "Japan must accept legal responsibility and take appropriate measures."

That opinion was echoed by the delegation of the Philippines, while China's Liu Zhenmin demanded that Tokyo provide redress.

Takashi Okada, Japan's deputy ambassador to the UN, was quick to reply that his nation had already done its best to make amends and urged other nations not to turn the comfort women into a political issue.

'Immeasurable pain'

"The government of Japan feels grieved at the thought of those who suffered such immeasurable pain," he said, using terms similar to a statement issued in 1993 by Yohei Kono, then the chief cabinet secretary.

Protesters hold signs during their 1,000th weekly rally to demand an official apology and compensation for wartime sex slaves from the Japanese government near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Protesters in South Korea have repeatedly demanded compensation from Japan for wartime sex slavesImage: AP

In that statement, which admitted that Japan had "at times" recruited women "against their will," Kono made "sincere apologies" for the "immeasurable pain and suffering" inflicted on comfort women. Tokyo maintained, however, that all issues of compensation had been settled by the 1965 Japan-South Korea treaty and the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty.

Historians have estimated that around 200,000 women - primarily from China, Korea and the Philippines - were forced to provide sexual services to troops of the Imperial Japanese forces, although there are many in Japan who believe the scale of the problem has been vastly exaggerated. Others argue that comfort women were little more than licensed prostitutes who were paid well for their services, while others were sold into the sex trade by impoverished parents. In either case, they claim, Japan cannot be held responsible.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that the Kono Statement be withdrawn, while there are indications that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planning to oversee a major reconsideration of Japan's self-perception of history if he fares well in elections for the Upper House of parliament in July.

There are also plans afoot to alter the Japanese constitution, giving the military more leeway in handling international disputes. Furthermore, revisions to an education system that some conservatives have criticized as "masochistic" are also being considered, as is a harder line in dealing with China and South Korea in everything from territorial issues to the different perceptions of history.

No evidence

In his previous spell as prime minister in 2007, Abe triggered a storm or protest from Japan's neighbors when he claimed no concrete evidence had been found that proves women were forcibly recruited into sexual slavery in military brothels.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference next to the national flag, which is hung with a black ribbon as a symbol of mourning for victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, at his official residence in Tokyo March 11, 2013. Japan honoured the victims of its worst disaster since World War Two on Monday: the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that killed almost 19,000 people and stranded 315,000 evacuees, including refugees who fled radiation from the devastated Fukushima atomic plant. REUTERS/Yuya Shino (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS DISASTER ANNIVERSARY)
Prime Minister Abe is said to be planning changes to the Japanese constitutionImage: Reuters

That opinion is shared by nationalist groups, including the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact. Hiromichi Moteki, secretary general of the group, says his aim is to translate books and historical documents and to provide that information to scholars and historians around the world so that they might re-evaluate the"evil empire" image of Japan of the early decades of the last century.

Moteki dismisses the latest Chinese and South Korean complaints to the UN as "ridiculous."

"These allegations are all fabricated," he insists. "They have no basis in fact at all and we have verified these facts."

Several historians have written papers on the accuracy of the comfort women's claims and how they came to be in the sex industry, with Moteki's group unsurprisingly promoting documents that support its position.

Kohyu Nishimura, for example, concluded in a paper issued earlier this year that "anti-Japanese agitators" are bending historical facts to psychologically "weaken and degrade" the Japanese people. And at the heart of this operation are "China and Korea and their anti-Japanese fellow travelers, which doggedly repeat the same malicious claims against Japan."

Lashing out at Japan

The US and its media used the issue to "lash out at Japan for its economic dominance in the '80s," he said, adding that it was also used as "a warning shot to Japan against becoming too 'uppity' in the conduct of policy with its neighbors."

Former South Korean comfort women Lee Oak-sun who was forced to serve for the Japanese Imperial Army as a sexual slave during World War II talks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Nanumui Jip, The House of Sharing, in Gwangju, south of Seoul, Tuesday, March 6, 2007. Calls for Japan's apology for so-called
One of the last Korean 'comfort women' is still demanding an apologyImage: AP

But Moteki's protestations are arguably tarnished by the society's claims that Japan was not to blame for any of the terrible things that happened across Asia in the early decades of the last century.

He claims that China triggered the Sino-Japanese War in August 1937. He maintains that there was no massacre of 300,000 civilians in Nanking four months later and that the United States provoked Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, while the annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 was inevitable because the kingdom was unable to maintain its independence. Moteki also argues that Japanese control brought great benefits to the Korean people in the form of schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

Whatever the truth behind the claims and counter-claims, Prime Minister Abe must be aware that any attempt to rewrite history poses a significant threat of triggering a new outbreak of fury among Japan's already fractious neighbors.

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