Every nation has its battles and achievements that it glorifies and every nation has episodes that it would rather forget. Every society, government, ethnic and religious group writes its own history, altering it over time depending on who is doing the writing.
In Taiwan, disputes continue to roil academia and political parties about what version of this nation’s history should be taught and the terminology that should be used. Throughout Asia, the debate over versions of history and terminology about events in the 1930s and World War II continues to cause outrage and diplomatic tensions.
It is long past time to end the dispute over one topic — the responsibility of the Japanese government and Imperial Japanese Army for the enslavement, abuse and deaths of tens of thousands of women in brothels run for their troops in China, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere before and during WWII.
The continued refusal of right-wing Japanese politicians and ultranationalists to accept that the Imperial Japanese Army did very terrible things before and during the war — hiding behind the childish excuse of “everybody else did it too” — is not just outrageous, it is sickening. Rape and pillaging have gone on for centuries, but that does not make it right.
During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first, short term in the office, he watered down the historic 1993 apology made by the then-Japanese Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono for the military’s use of comfort women and the “damage and suffering” caused by Japanese militarism. In March 2007, Abe adamantly denied that Japan had forced foreign women into sexual slavery during the war, saying: “There is no evidence to prove there was coercion.”
So it has come as no surprise that since Abe returned to power in late 2012 there has been a steady drip, drip, drip of naysayers insulting the surviving comfort women by dismissing the suffering and terror these women endured and the shame that continues to haunt them. Last month the chairman of Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, Katsuto Momii, said that the wartime brothels were not a big deal because many other countries have had similar systems in wartime. Momii has since retracted his remarks.
On Thursday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo will “consider re-examining” the evidence used as the basis for the 1993 apology to comfort women. Suga did not say to what end this examination would take place, but he talked about the need to maintain the confidentiality of those who gave the original interviews on the understanding that they would not be made public. He may have meant to sound cautious, but his comment came off like a threat.
Once again the credibility of the surviving comfort women is to be questioned, an experience rape victims and victims of sex trafficking the world over today know only too well. Girls and women who have been violated find themselves on trial, whether in the courtroom or the media, as male-dominated legal systems demand “proof of coercion.” Rapists count on their victims to be too traumatized, too embarrassed to testify, while society makes them feel as if they were to blame for being attacked in the first place.
What went on in the Japanese brothels could hardly be called consensual sex. Some survivors have told of being repeatedly beaten and raped, some have talked of being forced to service soldiers at 15-minute intervals, up to 40 or 50 times a day.