The ‘comfort women’ issue explodes

The news today is that the Abe Cabinet, while apparently still respecting the 1993 Kono statement on the ‘comfort women’ issue, will not issue another apology, even if the US Congress passes a resolution calling for Japan to apologize.

As suggested by two articles in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo — found here and here — Abe’s remarks last week may have nullified any progress he has made since coming to office in forging a rapprochement with Seoul.

Once again the failure of the postwar Japanese polity to account fully for the totality of Imperial Japan’s crimes during the war continues to haunt Japan and cast a shadow over its efforts to become a more substantial contributor to regional and international security.

But Japan’s failures still do not justify the US Congress passing this resolution. I want to respond to a comment made on this previous post, which challenges the view presented by Michael Green in the Yomiuri article I translated.

Before I go respond, however, I must emphasize that I have deep sympathy for those who suffered at the hands of Imperial Japan, just as I have deep sympathy for the victims of each and every of the twentieth century’s brutal regimes. That does not mean, however, that I want my representatives in Congress meting out historical justice. That is the issue with which I’m concerned, not the substance of the resolution.

So first, the poster — who signs her post as ‘Shrinegirl’ — launches an ad hominem attack on Green for being “quite uninformed” and lacking “understanding of the American political process.” She accuses Green of “McCarthyism” — that old smear — for suggesting that some of the NGOs involved in pushing for the resolution having North Korea’s backing. Having seen no evidence one way or the other, I’m not inclined to dismiss this immediately; it seems entirely plausible that at least one NGO involved in this debate has received support from North Korea. He did not name any organization in particular, so it’s foolish to read that to mean Amnesty International or any other interested organization.

The poster goes on to write: “It is wrong to call it a history issue. The Comfort Women is among the many unresolved historical issues still having a profound impact on regional relations. Cooperation and stability is fundamental to ther success of the 2 Party Talks and to overall security. The US Congress has every right to be concerned about how its major ally in Asia represents itself, especially to other US allies like South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. In terms or women’s rights this issue has very contemporary resonance.”

I take exceptional issue with the argument that this is not a “history issue.” That is all this issue is (or should be). The question of historical fact — and judgments about historical right and wrong insofar as the behavior of foreign governments and peoples are concerned — are not matters to be resolved by legislators, in any legislature. (Congress is free to apologize for whatever mistakes it feels the US government has made.) The twentieth century was a terrible century, perhaps the worst in human history in terms of the crimes committed by humans against others. I strongly doubt that a panel of US representatives is competent to determine which group of twentieth century victims is most deserving of justice (which also assumes that the US Congress is in a position to deliver “justice”). Who is to determine which cause is most worthy of congressional support? At the moment, it seems that the victims that are best organized get Congress’s help in their pursuit of justice, as a similar dynamic is at work in a current debate on a similar congressional resolution condemning Turkey for the Armenian genocide, discussed in this Washington Post op-ed by Jackson Diehl. (It’s strikingly similar: proposed by a Democratic congressman from a California district heavily populated by the aggrieved minority group, the Turkey resolution has prompted lobbying by the Turkish government, angry denunciations, and the potential for geopolitical consequences.)

This is a matter for the historians, because that is exactly what is at issue: Japanese leaders have yet to face up to the whole weight of burden of Japanese history. Japan’s skeletons have been allowed to hang in the closet for too long, in part because after the war the Japanese people could tell themselves that they were victims too, because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As described by Ian Buruma in The Wages of Guilt, his excellent book on German and Japanese efforts to cope with their wartime behavior, Japan’s unique status as the only country to date attacked with nuclear weapons meant that Japan’s wartime past was not dealt with openly in the same way that postwar Germany dealt with the crimes of the Third Reich.

One measly congressional resolution is not going to make up for six decades of failing to address Japan’s past properly. That is a job for historians, ideally Japanese historians: to end the obfuscation of Japanese politicians, Japanese historians must not hesitate in documenting the facts of the war as well as possible. I know, however, that in recent years the academic environment surrounding Japan’s wartime behavior has become decidedly unfriendly to those unwilling to toe the nationalist line — but this means that Japanese historians will have to look abroad for venues in which to document the truth of Japan’s wartime behavior. (A tiny disclosure: I have been assisting with one such effort.)

This congressional resolution has already had the unintended consequence of leading the Japanese government to dig in its heels in resisting the resolution, complicating efforts to put East Asian international relations on a more stable ground — and surely making it less likely that Japan will fully accept the facts of its wartime misbehavior. (As this debate rages, Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro’s film glorifying kamikaze pilots — I Go to Die for You — is on the brink of its debut.) I have no doubt that the groups pushing for this resolution are well-intentioned, but in politics good intentions can have disastrous consequences, and this may well be one such case.

Finally, this poster suggests, “The heart of the resolution is regional reconciliation, and Mr Abe successfully ended that.” I don’t disagree with the latter half of that statement, but I strongly dispute the former. Whatever the intentions of this resolution, it will not result in regional reconciliation. For genuine reconciliation requires that the parties involved want to be reconciled. Beyond Japan’s failures in regard to its history, for all their moralizing about Japan’s past, do Korea and China really want to be reconciled with Japan? Arguably both find the issue of Japan’s history to be a useful safety valve for domestic discontent.

This post has gone on for far too long, but seeing as how this is the hot-button issue of the moment, a long post was required.

5 thoughts on “The ‘comfort women’ issue explodes

  1. Anonymous

    It would be interesting to know what groups you think are involved in \”this\” and which one you suspect receives support from North Korea.While you are doing your \”history\” research, may I urge you to read some historiography as well as recent books examining the Holocaust denial phenomenon. Deborah Lipstadt is quite famous in this regard.Shrinegirl


  2. Anonymous

    There was substance in your reply?Again, what groups are involved in the US resoultion suggesting to Japan that it provides a substantive apology to the Comfort Women. I was surprised in your post how you did not understand the US legislative process nor were able to discern history from pseudo-history. I was more distressed to see that you were willing to let Japan humiliate itself for the mere manly purpose of standing up to the US.I did not ignore your reply. I ignored its lack of substance and wisdom. Now answer my direct question. I want to know what organization is commie and how they are helping. This would be important for all to know.Shrinegirl


  3. Anonymous

    Regarding to the relationship of asian countries, it\’s all about attitude, the japanese have a freaking twisted view regards to their crime and history, if they would calm themselves admit every crime committed in a humble manner and apologize sincerely, there\’re jillions of mutual benefits present in front of japan and china or other asian countries, they will respond for sure, China didn\’t ask for a penny from japan after the second world war to show a generous and kind manner for the sake of two countries future relationship, but the japanese are just bigots, and they have the most rascal government


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