In 2007, during his first term as Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe penned a work titled Toward a Beautiful Country, My Vision for Japan. The recent re-examination of the 1993 Kono Statement on the Imperial Japanese military’s use of “comfort women” during World War II (a euphemism for sex slaves), which was presented to the Japanese Diet on June 20, is the antithesis of the actions of “a beautiful country.” It represents a backward step, reopening a dark chapter in 20th-century history, which most of the world would consider long resolved. Japan, after all, was allied with Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists and shares culpability for the extensive crimes against humanity carried out by the Axis Powers.
The 1993 statement released by Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, found that “comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day,” and added that the “Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women.” According to a June 21 report in the Asahi Shimbun, a re-examination of the Kono statement concluded that “rather than uncover the facts, the main intent was to show the sincere posture of the Japanese government, so no investigation was conducted to back up the testimony given by the women.” The Asahi Shimbun also reported: “The draft of the Kono statement had already been written prior to the conclusion of the interviews with the women.” These new conclusions appear to be aimed at questioning the Kono statement’s accuracy, implying a backroom deal between Tokyo and Seoul in 1993, and casting doubts on the veracity of the testimony given by the 16 elderly Korean victims, most now deceased, who were interviewed in the early 1990s.
But is there really anything sinister about delicate bilateral negotiations aimed at rectifying a historic wrong? The diplomatic history of the United States indicates otherwise. In the mid-1990s a Senate investigation led by New York’s Alfonse D’Amato, and a U.S government report prepared by Under Secretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, determined that the Swiss National Bank and a number of Swiss commercial banks had maintained secret bank accounts established by the Nazis. These accounts held deposits obtained from gold bullion, jewelry, and other valuables looted from Jewish victims of the Holocaust prior to their murders. (In January 1997, a Swiss bank security guard discovered a cache of incriminating documents which were about to be shredded.) The evidence indicated that a number of Swiss bankers served as money launderers for the Third Reich and that Switzerland had turned over only about 15 percent of the Nazi-looted gold to the Allies at the conclusion of the war. Diplomatic pressure from Washington, including a threatened boycott of Swiss banks by the financial center of New York, reportedly angered the Swiss. However, upon reflection and in order to preserve Switzerland’s international reputation, both the Swiss government and private banks entered into arrangements to resolve the issue. Tokyo, instead of fixating on alleged South Korean diplomatic pressure over the Kono statement, would be wise to do the same.
The right-wing extremists in Japan who are seeking to undermine the Kono Statement are ignoring the overwhelming historic evidence that supports its key finding of Japanese military involvement in establishing the comfort women system. Among the most compelling is the eyewitness account of Dutch POW and comfort woman Jan Ruff O’Herne, recorded in her memoir Fifty Years of Silence: “The Japanese officers paced up and down, up and down the line, inspecting each girl. Now they were standing directly in front of me. One of them lifted my chin with a stick to see my face. They stood there grinning, looking at my legs, at my face at my body.” She then describes how she and other young Dutch women were forcibly taken to a comfort station where they were repeatedly, brutally raped by Japanese military officers. Ms. Ruff O'Herne, now in her nineties and living in Australia, gave similar testimony before a hearing of the House Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee in 2007.
Yet there are still those in Japan so lacking in decency that they challenge the account of this survivor. Just days after the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the current mayor of Osaka sought to justify the comfort women system by making a crude comparison. Mayor Toru Hashimoto also managed to besmirch the memory of those who landed at Normandy, forever immortalized by Ronald Reagan’s stirring words: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.” According to Mayor Hashimoto, these D-Day heroes were rapists. "After landing in Normandy, Allied soldiers raped French women” he said in a June 15 speech aimed reportedly at pointing out “the mistakes of others.” Did sexual assaults take place in Allied occupied France? Undoubtedly. Are crimes of rape, no matter how heinous, comparable to state-sponsored sexual slavery? Obviously not. But where are the official voices in Japan rising in condemnation of Mayor Hashimoto’s intemperate remarks directed against an ally who supposedly serves as the “cornerstone” for Japan’s national defense?
The backsliding on history now in vogue in Japan undercuts one of the key stated policy goals of the Abe administration: to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. Is revisiting a 1993 statement addressing violence against women in conflict a constructive means for furthering an alliance reportedly based on shared values? Seoul has stated that the Kono Statement stands as a “pillar” of South Korean-Japanese relations over the past two decades. Is putting relations between America’s two major Northeast Asian allies in the deep freeze a method for strengthening U.S. regional strategic interests in the face of a nuclearized North Korea?
In asserting that the Kono Statement was issued under pressure from the South Korean government, the Abe administration has needlessly raised tensions with South Korea. The timing could not be worse, given that the U.S. “pivot” to Asia is under question due to renewed crises in Europe and the Middle East, that North Korea continues its provocative actions, and that a sympathetic Chinese President Xi Jinping is about to make a landmark visit to Seoul—even before he visits Pyongyang. How is the U.S. to implement the Asian “pivot” when relations between its two key allies are at a historic low and military cooperation between them is virtually nonexistent?
The reconciliation of old enemies in Europe stands in striking contrast to Tokyo’s actions. On December 7, 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. This physical gesture of deep remorse for what the Nazis had done to the Jewish people, to the Poles, and to others began a healing process that continues to this day. Backtracking from Brandt’s dramatic gesture would be unthinkable for any German government.
Italy, as well, chooses to remember the Second World War via the Monument and Museum at Fosse Ardeatine near the catacombs on the outskirts of Rome. There one can view the tombs of 335 Italians murdered in a mass execution by the Nazis on March 24, 1944, after the Italian resistance had killed a squad of 33 Nazi police in an attack on the streets of Rome. “Ten Italians for each German policeman” was the command issued by the German occupation. Italy honors the resistance, the massacred victims, and the liberation of Rome by Allied forces on June 4, 1944, at a small museum at the site, rather than Mussolini and his Black Shirts. Japan, by contrast, celebrates its own Axis participation at Tokyo’s Yushukan Museum next to the Yasukuni Shrine.
Tokyo more recently displayed its serious misunderstanding of European sensitivities about World War II by having its ambassador to Paris issue an ill-conceived “expression of regret” over a South Korean exhibit on comfort women at a comic book festival in Angouleme, France, in February. To add to the embarrassment, a Japanese right-wing association showed up at the festival with a counter-exhibit that included comics with swastika banners—an exhibit that was immediately shut down.
Japan has accomplished a remarkable transformation since the Second World War as a responsible stakeholder on the global stage, a key supporter of the United Nations and other international organizations, a generous aid donor, and as a voice promoting world peace. Japan’s positive role was reflected in remarks given at the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London by Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Nobuo Kishi, a brother of Prime Minister Abe. Mr. Kishi said “Sexual violence in conflict is a war crime.” True enough.
But Tokyo should understand that actions speak louder than words. Repeated calls for revisiting the comfort women issue undercut any positive message which Tokyo wishes to project to the international community in London or elsewhere. And the intemperate remarks of not only the Mayor of Osaka but other leading voices in Japanese society on the comfort women and other historic issues present to the world the image of a country that is far from beautiful.
Dennis P. Halpin served as the U.S. Embassy/Beijing coordinator for the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and is a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute, SAIS (Johns Hopkins).