NYT Opinion: Mindy Kotler on “The Comfort Women and Japan’s War on Truth”, an excellent primer on the issue

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Hello Blog. One more post on the “Comfort Women” (since my last two publications here and here dealt with it) and then we’ll start getting back to regular topics. The Opinion Page on the NYT last November offered an excellent primer on the issue, including motives for why Japan’s ruling elites would seek to rewrite history (e.g., to sanitize their family honor and complicity in a dark past), both within and outside of Japan: Political subterfuge at the expense of history, all re-empowered by Japan’s rightward swing, in order to destabilize the region and re-aggravate the wounds of past conflicts, and to project deceitful historical revisionism worldwide.  How dishonest and selfish of a select powerful few.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

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The Comfort Women and Japan’s War on Truth
By MINDY KOTLER
The New York Times, NOV. 14, 2014
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/opinion/comfort-women-and-japans-war-on-truth.html

WASHINGTON — In 1942, a lieutenant paymaster in Japan’s Imperial Navy named Yasuhiro Nakasone was stationed at Balikpapan on the island of Borneo, assigned to oversee the construction of an airfield. But he found that sexual misconduct, gambling and fighting were so prevalent among his men that the work was stalled.

Lieutenant Nakasone’s solution was to organize a military brothel, or “comfort station.” The young officer’s success in procuring four Indonesian women “mitigated the mood” of his troops so well that he was commended in a naval report.

Lieutenant Nakasone’s decision to provide comfort women to his troops was replicated by thousands of Imperial Japanese Army and Navy officers across the Indo-Pacific both before and during World War II, as a matter of policy. From Nauru to Vietnam, from Burma to Timor, women were treated as the first reward of conquest.

We know of Lieutenant Nakasone’s role in setting up a comfort station thanks to his 1978 memoir, “Commander of 3,000 Men at Age 23.” At that time, such accounts were relatively commonplace and uncontroversial — and no obstacle to a political career. From 1982 to 1987, Mr. Nakasone was the prime minister of Japan.

Today, however, the Japanese military’s involvement in comfort stations is bitterly contested. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is engaged in an all-out effort to portray the historical record as a tissue of lies designed to discredit the nation. Mr. Abe’s administration denies that imperial Japan ran a system of human trafficking and coerced prostitution, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes.

The latest move came at the end of October when, with no intended irony, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party appointed Mr. Nakasone’s own son, former Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, to chair a commission established to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women issue.”

The official narrative in Japan is fast becoming detached from reality, as it seeks to cast the Japanese people — rather than the comfort women of the Asia-Pacific theater — as the victims of this story. The Abe administration sees this historical revision as integral to restoring Japan’s imperial wartime honor and modern-day national pride. But the broader effect of the campaign has been to cause Japan to back away from international efforts against human rights abuses and to weaken its desire to be seen as a responsible partner in prosecuting possible war crimes.

A key objective of Mr. Abe’s government has been to dilute the 1993 Kono Statement, named for Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono. This was widely understood as the Japanese government’s formal apology for the wartime network of brothels and front-line encampments that provided sex for the military and its contractors. The statement was particularly welcomed in South Korea, which was annexed by Japan from 1910 to 1945 and was the source of a majority of the trafficked comfort women.

Imperial Japan’s military authorities believed sex was good for morale, and military administration helped control sexually transmitted diseases. Both the army and navy trafficked women, provided medical inspections, established fees and built facilities. Nobutaka Shikanai, later chairman of the Fujisankei Communications Group, learned in his Imperial Army accountancy class how to manage comfort stations, including how to determine the actuarial “durability or perishability of the women procured.”

Japan’s current government has made no secret of its distaste for the Kono Statement. During Mr. Abe’s first administration, in 2007, the cabinet undermined the Kono Statement with two declarations: that there was no documentary evidence of coercion in the acquisition of women for the military’s comfort stations, and that the statement was not binding government policy.

Shortly before he became prime minister for the second time, in 2012, Mr. Abe (together with, among others, four future cabinet members) signed an advertisement in a New Jersey newspaper protesting a memorial to the comfort women erected in the town of Palisades Park, N.J., where there is a large Korean population. The ad argued that comfort women were simply part of the licensed prostitution system of the day.

In June this year, the government published a review of the Kono Statement. This found that Korean diplomats were involved in drafting the statement, that it relied on the unverified testimonies of 16 Korean former comfort women, and that no documents then available showed that abductions had been committed by Japanese officials.

Then, in August, a prominent liberal newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, admitted that a series of stories it wrote over 20 years ago on comfort women contained errors. Reporters had relied upon testimony by a labor recruiter, Seiji Yoshida, who claimed to have rounded up Korean women on Jeju Island for military brothels overseas.

The scholarly community had long determined that Mr. Yoshida’s claims were fictitious, but Mr. Abe seized on this retraction by The Asahi to denounce the “baseless, slanderous claims” of sexual slavery, in an attempt to negate the entire voluminous and compelling history of comfort women. In October, Mr. Abe directed his government to “step up a strategic campaign of international opinion so that Japan can receive a fair appraisal based on matters of objective fact.”

Two weeks later, Japan’s ambassador for human rights, Kuni Sato, was sent to New York to ask a former United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, to reconsider her 1996 report on the comfort women — an authoritative account of how, during World War II, imperial Japan forced women and girls into sexual slavery. Ms. Coomaraswamy refused, observing that one retraction did not overturn her findings, which were based on ample documents and myriad testimonies of victims throughout Japanese-occupied territories.

There were many ways in which women and girls throughout the Indo-Pacific became entangled in the comfort system, and the victims came from virtually every settlement, plantation and territory occupied by imperial Japan’s military. The accounts of rape and pillage leading to subjugation are strikingly similar whether they are told by Andaman Islanders or Singaporeans, Filipino peasants or Borneo tribespeople. In some cases, young men, including interned Dutch boys, were also seized to satisfy the proclivities of Japanese soldiers.

Japanese soldiers raped an American nurse at Bataan General Hospital 2 in the Philippine Islands; other prisoners of war acted to protect her by shaving her head and dressing her as a man. Interned Dutch mothers traded their bodies in a church at a convent on Java to feed their children. British and Australian women who were shipwrecked off Sumatra after the makeshift hospital ship Vyner Brooke was bombed were given the choice between a brothel or starving in a P.O.W. camp. Ms. Coomaraswamy noted in her 1996 report that “the consistency of the accounts of women from quite different parts of Southeast Asia of the manner in which they were recruited and the clear involvement of the military and government at different levels is indisputable.”

For its own political reasons, the Abe administration studiously ignores this wider historical record, and focuses instead on disputing Japan’s treatment of its colonial Korean women. Thus rebuffed by Ms. Coomaraswamy, the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, vowed to continue advocating in international bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, for Japan’s case, which is to seek to remove the designation of comfort women as sex slaves.

The grave truth about the Abe administration’s denialist obsession is that it has led Japan not only to question Ms. Coomaraswamy’s report, but also to challenge the United Nations’ reporting on more recent and unrelated war crimes, and to dismiss the testimony of their victims. In March, Japan became the only Group of 7 country to withhold support from a United Nations investigation into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka, when it abstained from voting to authorize the inquiry. (Canada is not a member of the Human Rights Council but issued a statement backing the probe.) During an official visit, the parliamentary vice minister for foreign affairs, Seiji Kihara, told Sri Lanka’s president, “We are not ready to accept biased reports prepared by international bodies.”

Rape and sex trafficking in wartime remain problems worldwide. If we hope to ever reduce these abuses, the efforts of the Abe administration to deny history cannot go unchallenged. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — all of whom had nationals entrapped in imperial Japan’s comfort women system — must make clear their objection to the Abe government’s perverse denial of the historical record of human trafficking and sexual servitude.

The United States, in particular, has a responsibility to remind Japan, its ally, that human rights and women’s rights are pillars of American foreign policy. If we do not speak out, we will be complicit not only in Japanese denialism, but also in undermining today’s international efforts to end war crimes involving sexual violence.

======================
Mindy Kotler is the director of Asia Policy Point, a nonprofit research center.

13 comments on “NYT Opinion: Mindy Kotler on “The Comfort Women and Japan’s War on Truth”, an excellent primer on the issue

  • Nice writeup and good introduction for the unfamiliar, but I’d disagree with the authors assumption at the end about America being the gold standart and lord protector of human rights in the world (also a different kind of propaganda, maybe she swallowed a bit too much). America has always shown “flexibility” (to use euphemism) for such matters as long as it suits their purposes. Not going to through the whole global list but even just in the isolated case of post-war Japan we know many things where America was far from the “force for good” it pretends to be (and is very good at pretending). As of right now, America is not too terribly unhappy with a more militarized Japan, for example, as they fall in line with the grand strategy (china containment). Lockheed & Co are already eagerly awaiting the orders.

    Sorry if that’s slightly off-topic, just had to get it out somewhere because everything else was already said in the other threads.

    Reply
  • bAUDRILLARD says:

    Brooks, Why Japan wont ever get that Security Council Seat (its their “friend”, the USA)-
    http://nationalinterest.org/feature/us-should-be-appalled-by-japans-historical-revisionism-12381
    ” the Obama administration and Congress should be concerned that, by losing control of the World War II historic narrative, they could pave the way to the ultimate determination that President Harry S. Truman was the real war criminal in WWII. Without the crimes against peace chronicled by the IMTFE, there is little moral justification for the atomic bombings beyond the “they saved lives” narrative (which is largely dismissed in Japan).”

    After Japanese “support” in the last gulf war, they lobbied for a security council seat-presumably as a reward-and were “politely” told by the USA, that no, they were not going support Japan for it.

    Reply
  • Thank you for this article. So the Japanese government not only wants to whitewash Japan’s history, but is actively sabotaging investigations into current possible war crimes conducted by other countries, to discredit the whole notion of an international council “meddling” with such issues. How convenient.
    At this point I have to ask myself the question whether Western people still living in or even just visiting Japan aren’t making themselves accomplices of a rogue state. Guys, are you really fine with supporting this government with your taxes and thereby contributing to a sinister ploy?

    Reply
  • The Japanese activists are now taking the fight to the United States.

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/03/japan-comfort-women-battle-spills-150311082100873.html

    “A new development is that Japan’s right-wing activists have now taken their struggle to revise historical understandings into the United States in several forms: by campaigning against local monuments and US textbook descriptions of the “comfort women” experience, and by recruiting American spokesmen to help them spread their views.”

    Reply
  • Baudrillard says:

    Yakuza and Abe co-“Ironically, Daikosha is considered loosely connected to the Abe administration, including Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s Minister of Education, via its supporters and members. Mr. Shimomura is in trouble for accepting a number of dubious political donations via unofficial political support groups, one of them led by an associate of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Shimomura also allegedly received cash payment from the yakuza associate as well.

    Daikosha has recently been protesting and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abe and the repeal of the organized crime control ordinances. They have staged protests near the U.S. embassy several times.”
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/18/is-the-yakuza-behind-caroline-kennedy-death-threats.html

    And I have always maintained that Japan is a soft Fascist Disneyland, article continues thus “Daikosha is a registered political organization in Japan with a declared income of roughly $550,000 last year, from advertising revenue in its magazines and donations. Some advertisers appeared to be large hotels that are “Official Hotels Of Tokyo Disneyland”—although the hotels have denied paying money to the group.”

    Reply
  • Interesting how you can watch commercials on CNN from the MFA. See Abe with Hillary Clinton, talking about woman’s education,
    see an interview with a JICA worker and development in SE Asia.
    All good, but Abe wants to put the issue of the comfort women to the side, while loving the photo-op of his spouse with Michelle Obama.

    Reply
  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Korean sex-slave debate takes a very nasty turn for the worse;

    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/03/25/national/saitama-city-blocks-one-sided-exhibit-on-comfort-women/

    Planned Korean sex-slave exhibition in Saitama cancelled after venue holders decide that it is too biased towards one point of view, and demand that the exhibition explains ‘the debate’.

    This is very dangerous. There is no ‘debate’ except in the minds of war-crime deniers. This is a war on the truth. As US citizens reading this will know, as soon as you are forced to ‘teach the debate’, you legitimize the illogical deniers, and take a step back from the truth, not a step forward.

    Very nasty.

    Reply
  • Freeatlast says:

    And then there is this gem: The Japanese performing horrible experiments on live POW’s during the war and of course trying to cover their tracks. If you read the article the barbarity of the actions is hard to bear.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/11517759/American-POWs-used-for-live-experiments-in-Japan-according-to-new-museum.html

    To me it always seemed the rigid social structure in Japan is one factor which caused the Japanese to commit such horrid atrocities (Nanking, medical experiments, etc.). It seems once given power over others or having someone of so called lower stature to bully their true nature comes out – perhaps this is from living in such an oppressive society? It seems that today we are one event away from something similar happening (as an example think about the calls for massacring Koreans in Tsuruhashi). Japan’s economy is teetering and one more natural disaster could throw it over the edge. It is worrisome that if such an event happens Japan could turn back to its horrible past and scapegoat non Japanese living in Japan.

    On the bright side professors decided to include this in a display at the University in Fukuoka, however I do not think the GOJ would do the same.

    — I would suggest not interpreting too much about a society based upon these aberrations unless you are qualified in social psychology. Conjecture of this ilk isn’t really all that constructive or productive.

    Reply
  • Freeatlast says:

    Dr. Debito – Thank you for the feedback. Based on my experience here however there does seem to be some connection between the rigidity of the culture/social structure and extreme behaviours. Yes maybe I pushed the analogy a bit far but even when Ishihara, Shintaro makes statements about “sangokujin” being a source of unrest in a natural disaster and then repeatedly gets re-elected one must take pause and wonder.

    Perhaps I am reacting strongly to recent personal experience.

    With regard to Mr. Di Griz’ comments in Item 10 yes it does appear that there is no debate among the GOJ but at least there are some academics willing to tread in the dangerous waters. It would be interesting to see how long their display related to these atrocities remains up.

    Reply
  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Freeatlast #11

    I understand your concerns.
    In the postwar era, there has been much introspection and research into how the Nazis convinced ordinary Germans to go along with thier insanity. In fact, a google search will show you that the topic has been done to death. A positive outcome is that German schoolchildren are educated about Nazi war crimes and crimes against humanity not to make them feel guilt or shame, but rather to stress the importance of using critical thinking skills to decide for themselves if authority should be obeyed.
    As an example, all German military take an oath that gives them an obligation to refuse orders of dubious moral ethics.

    If you contrast this against Japan, which in the same period has sought to do the opposite (crush critical thinking in education, and instil a blind seniority hierarchy) you can see that this is a problem. It is especially dangerous when the right-wing government seeks to introduce compulsory education that engernders the exact opposite of the German system; pride in the nations wartime crimes.

    I do not believe that this is a function of any ‘uniquely’ Japanese trait, since I don’t believe the Japanese are unique.
    In fact, if you look at the testimony of those Germans who were complicit in Nazi crimes, they will say that they were only doing what they were told (famously ‘I was only following orders’).
    This attitude in defense of Nazi crimes was a shock that has affected most western cultures to the point where suspicion of authority is taken for granted in many western societies.

    Indeed, many social scientists have sought to understand the social and psychological mechanisms that prevented good people from stopping nazis gas six million jews.

    Many experiments were done in the sixties. Google The Stanford Experiment, or The Banality of Evil, and you’ll see what I mean. People were intimidated by the symbols of authority, group pressure, and a lack of critical thinking, that has largely been dispelled in Western societies.

    My fear is that in not honestly examining how they were able to commit atrocities, the Japanese have not learned how to resist manipulation by authority, and authority in Japan under Abe’s watch is pulling their strings ever so easily.

    Reply

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