Every March 1 brings out flags and speeches in honor of the Korean Independence Movement in 1919. This year, the holiday coincided with renewed tension over Japanese responsibility for the “comfort women,” a euphemism for women who were forced into sexual slavery before and during World War II.
Since it emerged in the 1990s, the issue has caused stress in relations between Korea and Japan, which increased greatly after Shinto Abe became prime minister in 2012. Historians estimate that as many as 200,000 women, mostly Korean and Chinese, were forced to offer sex to Japanese soldiers in military brothels.
In 1993, chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement admitting the existence of military sexual slavery. Revisionist nationalists, however, believe that much of the evidence regarding military sexual slavery is false.
In the 1990s, the left-leaning Asahi Simbun ran a series of articles on military sexual slavery based on accounts by Seiji Yoshida, a Japanese soldier on Jeju Island. In 2014, the newspaper retracted the article ― not the fact of military sexual slavery ― after Yoshida admitted that he had made up the stories to sell books.
Revisionists have seized he retraction to argue that military sexual slavery did not exist. Amid the debate, the Abe administration reviewed the Kono Statement, but declined to change or withdraw it. Korea and China took the review as lack of sincerity on Japan’s part.
Over the past couple of years, the controversy has spilled over to the United States. Korean-American organizations in several cities have built monuments to military sexual slaves. Under Abe, the Japanese government has taken the unusual step of asking McGraw-Hill Education, a major textbook publisher in the U.S., to revise the text about the comfort women in a world history textbook.
The publisher declined, stating that “scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women,’ and we unequivocally stand behind the writing, research and presentation of our authors.”
History is about facts and interpretation. The evidence confirming the existence of sexual slavery in the Japanese military is sufficient to establish it as a fact. All discussions should begin with acknowledging the fact.
The problem is then interpretation. Why did it happen? What does it mean? Answers to the first question will no doubt focus on the broader context of Japan’s aggression in Asia and other atrocities that were part of that aggression. Answers to the second question will no doubt claim that military sexual slavery is a violation of basic human rights that deserves condemnation to prevent it from happening again.
An ongoing narrative on the issue is “resolution.” For Korea and China, this means admitting the historical fact, apologizing for it, compensating the victims and including it in history textbooks.
In a perfect world, an enlightened Japanese leadership could easily resolve the issue to assuage Korea and China. The problem is that most Japanese view the nation as both an aggressor and a victim of a war. In a Feb. 23 news conference, Crown Prince Naruhito echoed this sentiment by saying, “It was very painful that many precious lives were lost, many people suffered and felt deep sorrow in the world including in Japan.” He later went on to make remarks subtly critical of revisionist nationalism.
In politics, the left focuses on Japan’s aggression in Asia while arguing that the nation was a victim of American incendiary and atomic bombing at the end of the war. The right attempts to ignore aggression in Asia while casting the war as a defensive one that had to be fought, but was lost because of bad strategy.
Most Japanese are in the middle. They regret Japan’s actions in Asia, but find strident anti-Japanese feelings uncomfortable.
The key to resolving the conflict is to deflate revisionist nationalism in Japan by dividing it from the middle. Revisionists know this, which explains why some on the far right have begun using aggressive tactics to silence their opponents and intimidate the middle. The middle chose Abe to revive the economy, not to revive nationalism.
Korea can help deflate revisionist nationalism in Japan by reaching out to the middle through public diplomacy. Japanese in the middle need to know that Korea is against revisionist nationalism, not Japan itself, and that Korea wants good relations with Japan and its people. Korea also needs to use diplomacy elsewhere to show that stopping revisionist nationalism in Japan is critical to stability in Northeast Asia.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. ― Ed.