Thinking Aloud: Uncomfortable Truths

Dec. 7, 2014 by Darius

Today is Pearl Harbor Day, commemorating the anniversary of Japan’s sneak attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor that brought the US into the Second World War.  It seems that in the US, people aren’t interesting in refighting WWII.  To be sure, attention is paid to veterans and their sacrifice, but the issues themselves are quite noncontroversial.  Not so in Japan.  In recent months, furor over a 25-year-old newspaper story has reinvigorated the nationalist right wing, who seeks to rewrite history over Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves, known euphemistically as “comfort women.”

The immediate issue is a series of articles published in Asahi Shimbum, Japan’s leading left-of-center newspaper, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  These articles were responsible for uncovering much of the extent of the abuse of “comfort women” by Japanese forces during World War II.  However, they cited a former Japanese soldier’s testimony.  It ultimately became clear that this soldier was not a reliable source, but it took Asahi Shimbum until August of this year to formally retract the articles.  Japan’s nationalists have seized on the retraction of these particular articles as proof that the entire “comfort women” story is a lie concocted by Japan’s Asian enemies, especially Korea, to slander Japan.

It isn’t immediately clear what the comfort women deniers would have the rest of the world believe.  Do they dispute that the Japanese military ran brothels in military zones for its soldiers?  That seems rather nonsensical.  Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone includes in his memoir that as a young lieutenant during WWII he was responsible for creating a brothel at his base in Borneo.  Or do the comfort women deniers accept the existence of the brothels and dispute that women were coerced into serving in these brothels?  That contradicts the testimony of many of the women themselves, as well as other people present.

Attempting to scrub one’s sins from history is predictable but unjust.  Leaving justice aside, though, the nationalist right isn’t helping Japan here and now.  For starters, those who deny Japan’s wartime crimes complicate relations with would-be allies in the region, like South Korea, and provide a nice punching bag for adversaries, most notably China.

Most of Japan has moved on from World War II.  It’s time for the right wing to follow.

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