Japan's Uncomfortable Past

By McCormack, Gavan | History Today, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Japan's Uncomfortable Past


McCormack, Gavan, History Today


* The question of responsibility for the war that ended a half century ago becomes more pressing for Japan as the war itself recedes in memory. Social and political rifts over the issue deepen, and the international ramifications grow more serious. Since the beginning of the 1990s dozens of law suits claiming apology and compensation have been lodged with Tokyo courts on behalf of the many victims of Japan's colonialism and aggression, including the former `Comfort Women', the victims of the Nanking and other massacres, and the victims of bacteriological or chemical attacks on wartime China. Of all the issues, the Comfort Women may be most intractable.

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists issued a report on the Comfort Women in 1994 which referred to large numbers of women and girls having been held captive, beaten, tortured and repeatedly raped in wartime Japanese military installations. In February 1996, a report for the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations described the Comfort Women as `sex slaves' and their treatment as a `crime against humanity'. It called upon Japan to compensate victims, punish those responsible, without regard to limitation of time, and to ensure that educational curricula include the historical facts. In Seoul, Manila, Jakarta and the other cities of the old `Co-Prosperity Sphere' large numbers of angry women began to speak about what had happened to them fifty years ago.

In December 1996 the US Justice Department's Criminal Division announced that it had drawn up an immigration `ban list' of Japanese believed to be responsible for war crimes; three of the twelve (unidentified) people on that list were thought to be associated with the Comfort Women system, the others being former members of the Harbin-based `Unit 731' responsible for bacteriological warfare in China and many horrific crimes against prisoners. In other words, fifty years after the event, Washington had decided to place Japanese actions on the same level as Nazi war crimes, so exceptionally heinous that suspected perpetrators should not enjoy any protection from the lapse of time.

Within Japan, serious efforts have been made at an official level to grapple with these problems. In 1993, the war was for the first time described by the prime minister as aggressive and colonial, and in 1995, the Diet adopted a resolution expressing formal regret over it. Official involvement in establishing and managing `comfort houses' for Japanese soldiers was admitted, and the government has conceded that most of the women working in them had been forced to do so. A fund, nominally private but with strong official backing, was established to compensate surviving Comfort Women and specific letters of apology from the prime minister, accompanying solatium payments, were issued to the first of the former victims during 1996.

However, these modest advances excited fierce opposition. Several significant new organizations emerged in the mid-1990s. Inside the National Diet, Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) members who insisted on the justice of the war's cause and firmly opposed any apology in December 1994 formed a `Diet members League for the 50th Anniversary of the End of the War', which changed its name in April 1996 to the `Diet members League for a Bright Japan'. A corresponding group of opposition party (Shinshinto) members under the title `Diet members League for the Passing on of a Correct History' was formed in February 1995. Both were closely linked at national level to the `Citizens' association for the Defence of Japan', founded in 1981 and headed in the 1990s by the composer Mayuzumi Toshiro.

Outside the Diet, the `Liberal View of History Study Group' and the `Society for the Making of New School Textbooks in History' were established in 1995 and 1996, under the leadership of the Tokyo University professor, Nobukatsu Fujioka, with the mission of striving to `inculcate a sense of pride in the history of our nation' and in particular of securing the deletion of all references to Comfort Women from school history text books. …

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