Japan’s Troubling Denial of Comfort Women

For the past year, Northeast Asia has been in the grip of a worsening spiral of tensions provoked by territorial disputes and nationalist statements by political leaders.

Careful diplomacy to defuse the deepening crisis is urgently needed. So the announcement by Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on February 28 that the Japanese government intends to "review" the Kōno Declaration, widely seen as a landmark step towards reconciliation with its Asian neighbors, was greeted in many quarters with an astonishment that borders on disbelief.

The Kōno Declaration was issued in August 1993 by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yōhei Kōno,. The declaration followed a government review of evidence that during the Asia Pacific War the Japanese military operated an empire-wide system of military brothels — so-called comfort stations — to which women were recruited, often by deception or force.

In the words of Kōno’s formal statement, the study "revealed that in many cases [the comfort women] were recruited against their own will, through coaxing coercion, etc, and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments." Kōno went on to offer the Japanese government’s apology for the terrible suffering caused, and promised that Japan would face squarely the historical facts as described above instead of evading them, and take them to heart as lessons of history."

Any effort to retreat from this statement would not only greatly aggravate friction between Japan and South Korea, to whom the statement was primarily directed, but would also cause anger in many other countries of the region.

During a debate in the Japanese Diet on February 20, Suga stated that a re-investigation of the Kōno Declaration was needed "from an academic perspective." Few people (least of all historians) would object to further careful study of the history of the "comfort women." But the background to Suga’s statement raises very large questions about the "academic" nature of the proposed review.

The Kōno Declaration has long been a bête noire of the Japanese right, who believe that it besmirches the honour of the wartime Japanese military. In 2007, during Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s first term in office, his cabinet issued a "decision" suggesting that there had been no direct forcible recruitment of comfort women by the Japanese military themselves. The proposed review appears to be a further extension of this approach.

But the current Abe government’s determination to pursue the issue at this sensitive moment is puzzling.

One explanation may be that, by stirring nationalist sentiment, the government is preparing the ground for a further push towards military expansion and constitutional revision. Another could be the desire for public distractions as Japan moves towards an unpopular consumption tax hike, scheduled for April 1.

The rhetoric of the February 20 Diet debate suggests that the review will focus particularly on the testimony of 16 South Korean former comfort women who were interviewed as part of the Japanese government’s research that preceded the drafting of the Kōno Declaration. But a "review" that took this approach would be meaningless.

Persuasive evidence of forced recruitment by the military comes not just from these 16 women but also from archival records and the testimony of women in many countries, including South Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. In Australia, Jan Ruff-O’Herne, who as a young woman was forced into a "comfort station" in the Dutch East Indies where she suffered terrible physical abuse, has commented that it is "just hideous to not acknowledge it, there are so many witnesses who have spoken out about this."

In many cases, the evidence shows that women were tricked into serving in comfort stations by brokers who offered them work in restaurants or factories. Since these brokers were working on behalf of the military, it is, as former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama says, "meaningless to try to parse whether the military had forced the women into prostitution."

The fear is that the proposed review, far from being a balanced academic assessment of the evidence, will follow the classic techniques of historical denialism — cherry-picking tiny fragments of convenient evidence, and using personal attacks to discredit eye-witnesses or scholars whose statements are inconvenient.

Japan’s friends and allies should be deeply concerned about this. Anything other than a sincere and historically responsible approach to the issue can only do harm to Japan’s international relations and credibility; and that would be particularly sad because Japanese civil society groups have been at the forefront of the fight for justice for the comfort women.

Violence against women in war is one of the great human rights issues of our day, and the comfort women issue is a matter of global human rights. Like the terrible problems of child sexual abuse that haunt many of our religious institutions, it is a difficult issue to address. But, as in the case of child sexual abuse, denial only makes the wounds fester and corrupts the culture of the deniers. The Japanese government should face the past — because only by doing so can they contribute to making a better future for their country, the region and the world.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. This first appeared in the East Asia Forum.