By the 1950’s, professors at our universities were teaching American history, “warts and all.” By the late 60’s, it was mostly warts. Now, it is all warts, all the time.
The Japanese have taken a different tack. They have sanitized their history, especially their actions during World War II, and only in response to pressure from the outside world have they acknowledged any wrongdoing at all. Even then, their grudging admissions are euphemistically phrased and conspicuous for what they do not include. Most recently, the ugly topic of sex slaves used by Hirohito’s army during World War II has caused the Japanese to squirm, omit, equivocate, euphemize, and deny.
The Japanese kidnapped more than 200,000 girls (some researchers argue the number is as high as 300,000), mostly from Korea and China but also from countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, and transported them to “comfort stations” to service Japanese troops. Many of the girls were as young as 11 or 12, and few had reached 18, yet the Japanese, to this day, call them “comfort women.” Moreover, the Japanese claimed that the girls were not kidnapped but willingly participated as professional prostitutes. In 1993, after several international protests, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a qualified apology, still calling the sex slaves “comfort women” and the military brothels “comfort stations.” No government program of compensation to the few remaining survivors accompanied the apology.
In March 2007, some 120 members of Japan’s parliament demanded that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rescind the apology, arguing that Japan was engaging in a “masochistic view of history” to please foreigners. Nariaki Nakayama, chairman of the group of parliamentarians making the demand, claimed,
Some say it is useful to compare the brothels to college cafeterias run by private companies, who recruit their own staff, procure foodstuffs, and set prices. Where there’s demand, businesses crop up . . . but to say women were forced by the Japanese military into service is off the mark. This issue must be reconsidered, based on truth . . . for the sake of Japanese honor.
Deputy Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura said, “I believe some parents may have sold their daughters. But it does not mean the Japanese army was involved.” Before he became prime minister, Abe said the same things. Now, in an attempt to improve relations with China and South Korea, Abe says the apology will stand, but, “The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.” Proof of coercion, Abe insists, is “complete fabrication.”
There is a kernel of truth in what Abe and the others say. Some parents did sell their daughters into slavery, and, initially, many of the comfort women were Japanese prostitutes who received bonuses for working overseas servicing Japanese troops. Nonetheless, the prostitutes could meet only a fraction of the demand, and the Japanese government thought that they were tarnishing the image of the Japanese as the Oriental super race. By the early 1940’s, Japanese prostitutes had been mostly replaced by kidnapped girls from conquered territory. Documents found during 1992 in the archives of the Japanese Defense Ministry provide proof that the Japanese military was responsible for the program.
Then, too, there is the testimony of hundreds of surviving comfort women. Lee Yong-soo, 78, says she was 14 when Japanese soldiers dragged her from her home in Korea and forced her into sexual slavery in Formosa. “The Japanese government must not run from its responsibilities,” she insists. “I want them to apologize, to admit that they took me away when I was a little girl to be a sex slave, to admit that history.” Lee is typical of the survivors.
Not typical is Jan Ruff-O’Hearn, now an Australian from Adelaide, who, in testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives, called the procurement and use of “comfort women” “the most shameful story of the worst human rights abuse committed by the Japanese during World War II . . . ” She also revealed that “In the so-called ‘Comfort Station’ I was systematically beaten and raped day and night. Even the Japanese doctor raped me each time he visited the brothel to examine us for venereal disease.”
There is also testimony from Japanese soldiers. Yasuji Kaneko, 87, an infantryman in China during World War II and now living in Tokyo, recalls, “The women cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the Emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.” Other soldiers have admitted that, under orders, they kidnapped girls for the brothels.
Some sex slaves served in traveling brothels—boxcars on trains stopping intermittently to the delight of Japanese troops. Not infrequently, the girls serviced up to a hundred soldiers during a 48-hour stopover. One such stretch of rail line was made famous by The Bridge on the River Kwai. While 60,000 British, Dutch, and Australian POWs—and some 700 Americans—worked to built roadbed and trestles and lay ties and track from Thailand into Burma, sex slaves were often worked to death by the Japanese soldiers guarding the Allied POWs. The POWs did not prosper, either. More than 12,000 of them died.
Perhaps most disturbing about the latest controversy is the endorsement of Prime Minister Abe’s remarks by the Japanese media and by the general populace. His approval ratings plunged during March—not because he denied sex slavery, but because he refused to rescind Japan’s 1993 apology.
If you want to find a truly “masochistic view of history,” don’t seek it in Japan—try American universities.
Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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