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Japan and the Comfort Women: Not a ‘Beautiful Country’

5:14 PM, Jul 1, 2014 • By DENNIS P. HALPIN
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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.

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