It was about 15 years ago, recalled Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a mild-mannered historian, when he grew fed up with the Japanese government's denials that the military had set up and run brothels throughout Asia during World War II.
Instead of firing off a letter to a newspaper, though, Yoshimi went to the Defense Agency's library and combed through official documents from the 1930s. In just two days, he found a rare trove that uncovered the military's direct role in managing the brothels, including documents that carried the personal seals of high-ranking Imperial Army officers.
Faced with this smoking gun, a red-faced Japanese government immediately dropped its long-standing claim that only private businessmen had operated the brothels. A year later, in 1993, it acknowledged in a statement that the Japanese state itself had been responsible. In time, all government-approved junior high school textbooks carried passages on the history of Japan's military sex slaves, known euphemistically as "comfort women."
"Back then, I was optimistic that this would effectively settle the issue," Yoshimi said. "But there was a fierce backlash."
The backlash came from young nationalist politicians led by Shinzo Abe, an obscure lawmaker at the time in the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who lobbied to rescind the 1993 admission of state responsibility. Their goal finally seemed close at hand after Abe became prime minister last September.
Abe said he would adhere to the 1993 statement, but he also undercut it by asserting that there was no evidence showing the military's role in forcibly recruiting women into sex slavery. His comments incited outrage in Asia and the US, where the House of Representatives is considering a nonbinding resolution that would call on Japan to admit unequivocally its history of sex slavery and to apologize for it.
To Yoshimi, Abe's denial sounded familiar. Until Yoshimi came along 15 years ago, the government had always maintained that there were no official documents to prove the military's role in establishing the brothels. Abe was now saying there were no official documents to prove that the military forcibly procured the women -- thereby discounting other evidence, including the testimony of former sex slaves.
"The fact is, if you can't use anything except official documents, history itself is impossible to elucidate," said Yoshimi, a history professor at Chuo University.
John Dower, a historian of Japan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Yoshimi's "extremely impressive" work has "clarified the historical record in ways that people like Prime Minister Abe and those who support him refuse to acknowledge."
After completing his studies at the University of Tokyo, Yoshimi concentrated on Japan's postwar democratization. It was while searching for documents related to Japan's wartime use of poison gas that he first stumbled upon proof of the military's role in sex slavery.
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