Japan may repeat history it denies

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Japan may repeat history it denies


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, is led by a Shinto priest as he visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2013. He was the first prime minister to do so in seven years. [REUTERS/NEWS1]

Reports from Japan say its people can’t understand why Korea keeps asking for official apologies for the country’s misdeeds as a colonizer and imperial aggressor during World War II.

The main reason is that current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying so hard to reel back the apologies Tokyo offered its neighbors in the past.

As U.S. President Barack Obama visits both Tokyo and Seoul on a four-nation Asian trip, he’s likely to get an earful from Japan’s neighbors about Abe and his government’s denials of war crimes such as forced sexual slavery of women and forcing laborers from Korea and other Asian nations to work in Japanese factories and mines - all at a time when Abe is trying to change Japan’s Constitution to make it less pacifist and increase the size of the country’s military

Abe has gone so far as to deny that Japan invaded its neighbors.

To victims of Japanese colonization and wartime invasion - which include Korea, China, Taiwan and all the Asian nations occupied by the imperial army from 1941 to 1945 - this is nothing less than a denial of the facts of history and an adamant refusal by Japan to admit any guilt for them.

And it comes just a few short years after previous Japanese leaders bowed and apologized for those crimes.

So far, Abe has gotten away with it at the cost of mere diplomatic friction. If Angela Merkel or another German chancellor tried denying the invasion of France or Poland during World War II, or promised to backpedal on any past apologies to the Jews for the Holocaust, the reaction of Europe and the rest of the world would be unimaginably harsh.

The hawkish Abe, grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, minister of munitions for most of World War II and prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960, is known for nationalist rhetoric and actions that attempt to deny the Japanese government’s historical misdeeds. In office, such actions include:

One year ago, Abe raised international alarm after making remarks that seemed to deny its wartime aggressions and history of invasions. He told a meeting at the Japan’s House of Councillors, or upper house of the Diet, on April 23, 2013, “The definition of what constitutes ‘aggression’ has yet to be established in academia or in the international community.”

This followed Abe’s assertion to the upper house on Feb. 1 that he was planning to issue his own statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II next year that would somehow supersede similar statements made by his predecessors on previous war anniversaries. “I would like to issue a ‘future-oriented’ statement that is appropriate for the 21st century,” he said.


Prime Minister Abe gestures from the pilot’s seat of a T-4 training jet of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse flight team on a visit to the Air Self-Defense Force’s base in Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture on May 12, 2013. The number 731 was painted on the fuselage just beneath him. The number evoked memories of Japan’s notorious Unit 731, the covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Japanese Imperial Army. The unit is known to have experimented on live humans. Provided by Jiji Press

This suggested he would in effect overturn the 1995 apology for colonial rule by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 15, 1995, which was considered Japan’s official position on its wartime aggressions regardless of which political party was in power. (Abe seemed to withdraw the threat of making his own “statement” last month in order to get Korean President Park Geun-hye to agree to attending a three-way leaders summit in The Hague with himself and Obama.)

Last Dec. 26, Abe paid respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines Class-A war criminals among its war dead, as it is viewed as a symbol of Japan’s militarism and denial of its colonial brutalities. He was the first prime minister to pay homage there since Junichiro Koizumi in 2006.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declared in February that the Abe government will launch an investigation to “re-examine” the testimonies of 16 Korean women who were victims of sexual slavery in a probe into the comfort women issue ordered by the Japanese government in 1991.

This raised alarm in Seoul that the Abe administration planned to disavow the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono officially apologizing for the military-run brothels of World War II. But Abe’s top spokesman at the same time (and several times afterwards) insisted that the government “upholds past apologies.”

Abe previously served as prime minister for one year from 2006 until he resigned in September 2007, claiming exhaustion and stomach ailments. In March 2007, Abe provoked international outrage when he made remarks that seemed to deny the 1993 Kono Statement. “There is no evidence to prove there was coercion” of women into sexual slavery, he said.

He added that there was no evidence of coercion in the “stricter sense,” such as military police breaking into peoples’ homes and kidnapping women. After international criticism, his government issued an apology later the same month.

When Abe returned for a second term as prime minister in December 2012, the world wondered whether he would take the same nationalistic, history-denying past. And he did.

Seoul is especially alarmed by the news, and Washington, in particular, encouraging Japan to beef up its military, partly in the name of gaining the right to so-called collective self-defense, which is technically the ability to come to the military aid of an attacked ally.

“By 2020, I think Japan will have completely restored its status” of its rights to collective self-defense, Abe said on Jan. 1 in a New Year’s address. This, he said, would make “great contributions to peace and stability in the region and the world.”

Abe is pushing for a revision of the pacifist Constitution that Japan adopted following World War II. Article 9 of its “Peace” Constitution, written by the U.S., states, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” It goes on to say Japan will never maintain land, sea and air forces and that “the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

To do so, Abe is also pushing to revise Article 96 of the Constitution, which says any amendment must be backed by two-thirds of both houses of the Japanese parliament. He wants approval to be made by a simple majority in the Diet followed by a national referendum.

Last May, Abe was photographed sitting in the pilot’s seat of a T-4 training jet of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse flight team, holding his thumb up with a grin. The number 731 was painted on the fuselage just beneath him. The number evoked memories of Japan’s notorious Unit 731, the covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Japanese Imperial Army that experimented on live humans, including prisoners of war from China, Russia and Korea, between 1932 and 1945. Some of its scientists were tried for war crimes. Korean politicians said Abe’s photo op was the equivalent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel “riding an aircraft with the Nazi swastika.”

If a German chancellor tried any of the history-denying stunts of Abe, the world’s reaction would be very different, points out Japan expert Nam Sang-gu, a senior researcher at Northeast Asian History Foundation, a state-run research institute.

“Remember [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan’s visit to the Kolmeshohe Cemetery in Bitburg, which contains the graves of Nazi SS soldiers,” Nam said. “That caused great controversy and protest in the U.S.”

In May 1985, Reagan accompanied West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to lay a wreath for German soldiers buried at the military cemetery in the outskirts of Bitburg to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. The visit prompted fierce criticism and protests in the United States and from Holocaust survivors since the cemetery includes 49 graves of soldiers from the Waffen-SS, the combat arm of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit, later condemned in the Nuremburg Trials as a criminal unit due to its Nazi and war crime involvement.


“The president’s visit became a big issue and [the U.S. Congress] even adopted a resolution opposing Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery,” Nam said.

Backpedaling Abe administration

Seoul requests Japanese political leaders, especially the prime minister and his cabinet members, not to pay their respects at the Yasukuni Shrine, which Seoul says “glorifies a war of aggression.”

After she took office last February, President Park refused one-on-one talks with Prime Minister Abe because of his distortions of historical issues.

On March 14, Abe for the first time said he will uphold the 1993 Kono Statement acknowledging and apologizing for the forced recruitment of women as sex slaves by Japan’s military. He also indicated he will uphold the 1995 Murayama Statement.

The Murayama Statement said Japan “following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war .?.?. through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.”

The timing of Abe’s backpedaling was strategic: at the time, he was very eager to succeed in getting a three-way summit with Park and Obama in The Hague on the sidelines of a nuclear summit later that month. These were the first talks between Abe and Park.

Also at that time, the Korean government announced a bilateral senior foreign affairs officials meeting in Seoul to discuss the comfort women issue, the first of its kind, which was held on April 16 in Seoul. Such talks are to be regularized every month.

Obama was set to visit four Asian countries later the same month, from April 23 to 25 in Japan, and then Korea from April 25 to 26.

Yoon Mee-hyang, co-head of Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, said because of such inconsistencies by Abe and his administration, “We are concerned that recent Japanese actions including the director general meeting between Japan and Korea on the issue of comfort women is more as a gesture to the U.S. ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit, rather than actually wanting a resolution to the issue.”

A Dutch-Australian former comfort woman, Jan Ruff-O’Hearn, who testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007, called the issue “one of the worst human rights abuses of World War II, the forgotten Holocaust.”

“The German Holocaust is known worldwide and taught to students,” said Yoon. “But at that time, the Japanese military’s comfort women victims also existed.” The comfort women issue needs to be taught to students as well, she said.

“The German and Japanese postwar posture differs,” said Seo Hyun-ju, a researcher at the Northeast Asian History Foundation. “The German government has actively participated in postwar reparations programs to compensate the Nazi’s victims. But Japan seems to have been more focused on postwar recovery.”

Following the leader

The historical denials do not just come from Abe and his cabinet but other leaders of Japanese society.

In May 2013, Toru Hashimoto, Osaka Mayor and co-founder of the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, drew international criticism for saying “a comfort women system was necessary” for Japan’s wartime troops.

“If you think about those Japanese soldiers risking their lives in a rain of bullets in the battlefield,” said Hashimoto, “you can see that a comfort women system was necessary.” He added it was “unfair” for Japan to be singled out and said that a “comfort women system was common in countries around the world at that time, including during the [1950-53] Korean War and the Vietnam War.”

He said, “There is no evidence to prove that the Japanese government used violence and threats to kidnap those women.”

In January, the newly appointed chairman of Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, Katsuto Momii, said that comfort women “could be found in any nation that was at war,” citing nations like France and Germany. He also said that the Netherlands continues to have brothels.

The Korean government called this remark “an insult to women’s dignity and a less-than-shameless attempt to distort history.”

Momii apologized after harsh domestic and international criticism for his “very inappropriate” remark.

Seo points out that the Japanese comfort women system was unique in that “the military, on behalf of the government, installed comfort stations and managed and operated the comfort women system as well as the recruiting and transportation of the women.” Something similar could only be found in Nazi-era Germany, she said. “That is different from soldiers frequenting brothels near military camps.”

Japan’s government initially denied involvement in setting up and operating so-called comfort stations, but Yoshimi Yoshiaki, a Japanese historian who has become an active voice on the issue, uncovered a key document in 1992 on matters concerning the recruitment of women to work in the military brothels.

Consequently, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa apologized to the Korean people on a state visit to Korea in January 1992. In August 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei issued the landmark statement that admitted the involvement of the military and police authorities and the forced recruitment of comfort women and offered apologies on behalf of the government.

Hard proof in records

“There is a flaw in the argument that claims the testimonies of victims and other officials cannot be counted as evidence, that only official documents can be proof,” Seo said. “The Japanese government at the time of the writing of the Kono Statement possessed court proceedings of the well-known Batavia trials, which acknowledges that Japanese military forced Dutch women into sexual slavery and soldiers responsible were even sentenced to death.”

She was referring to court records in the National Archives of Japan including a 1949 record from Batavia, or today’s Jakarta, in which a group of 35 Dutch women who had been victimized in Indonesia brought a case against 12 Japanese army officers.

Documents from military court proceedings in 1948 detailed that the Japanese military forcibly transferred women to so-called comfort stations in Batavia, “for the purpose of prostitution,” and the women were forced to provide sexual services to army officers. Of 12 accused Japanese officers, one was sentenced to death and the rest were sentenced to prison terms.

Nam said the Japanese government needs to acknowledge its forced mobilization of women into sexual slavery “as a national crime” and offer official reparations to make the apology non-retractable.

In a statement issued on the 60th anniversary of the war’s end in 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dropped the phrase “following a mistaken national policy” that was used in Murayama’s statement. His statement emphasized Japan’s international contributions, such as official development assistance and peacekeeping operations.

Nam said he anticipates that Abe in his 70th anniversary statement on Aug. 15, 2015, will follow Koizumi’s lead and may leave out the phrase “through its colonial rule and aggression,” which he has been hesitant to use in the past.

Next year also marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-Korea relations.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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