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.