Is Japan Revising History, or Is South Korea Moving the Goalposts?

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In 1932, Japan, which held the largest foreign concession in China, established a brothel in Shanghai employing Japanese prostitutes. As Japan took over large parts of China, it established hundreds of so-called comfort stations in areas it controlled. Women - according to some historians, more than 100,000 - were recruited from Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan by China in 1895; Korea, which Japan annexed in 1910; and from other countries, in addition to China itself. On these points, there is not too much factual disagreement between Japan and Korea.

As repugnant as prostitution seems today, it was legal at that time, and the practice was widespread in Japan. Many of the Japanese girls recruited, and at least some Koreans, were daughters of destitute farmers who accepted money to send them away. Japan maintains that there are no surviving records indicating Japanese government involvement. Tokyo insists that prostitution was organized by contractors, a position with which Koreans strongly disagree. Surviving Korean women have given moving testimony of being coerced into service, raped multiple times daily and suffering frequent physical abuse. Many died.

Nonetheless, for three decades after 1945, the issue was not considered serious by the newly independent Republic of Korea - nor by Japan or the United States. Indeed, a 1944 U.S. military investigation in liberated territory concluded that the 20 Korean women it interviewed were "nothing but prostitutes," who were reasonably well fed and had "plenty of spending money."  There was but a single postwar trial on the issue; a dozen Japanese officers in Indonesia were convicted of violating rules against involuntary recruitment.
 
An agreement reached

As Japan's postwar economy began to recover, negotiations with Seoul, which asked for $364 million for Koreans forced into labor and military services during Japan's annexation, resulted in a 1965 treaty and related agreements by which Tokyo provided an $800 million package. Both sides termed the agreement "complete and final."
  
During the Korean War, native women, dubbed "Western princesses," were provided for American and United Nations forces, with the explanation that the activity would help the economy. At least one movie about Japanese comfort stations appeared in the 1970s, but the practice drew little notice.
 
Bitterness in Korea over the terms of the 1965 arrangements grew stronger in the early 1990s. In 1992 a major Japanese newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, began publishing a series of sensational articles containing the testimony of a Japanese male who claimed to have abducted more than 100 Korean women for the Japanese military. Many Japanese believe the articles, published by such a prominent outlet, inflamed opinion in Korea. In 1993, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologised for Japanese abuses and indicated that some degree of Japanese government coercion had occurred. The Kono statement involved some coordination with Korean officials, who praised its issuance.

In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi signed a joint declaration stating "their common determination to raise to a higher dimension the close, friendly and cooperative relations" between Japan and the Republic of Korea. Obuchi expressed his "deep remorse and heartfelt apology" for the "tremendous damage and suffering" Japan caused, a statement which Kim "accepted with sincerity" and for which he expressed his appreciation.  Both leaders pledged to "build solid, good-neighborly and friendly relations in the twenty-first century."

But Kim's three successors have not shown  support for this declaration, leading many Japanese to cry foul and conclude that Korean politics, rather than historical grievances, are dictating a policy of continued criticism of Japan.

Attempts to jointly study the history of the controversy have not led to any significant agreement. Japan's current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is accused of wanting to revise history; but his critics in Korea, Japan, the United States and elsewhere have no credible explanation of Abe's motives. No Korean to whom I have spoken fears any present or future Japanese attempt to reassert any control over Korea - not even of two tiny islands that Tokyo feels are legally Japanese but that the Korean coast guard has occupied since the 1950s. Japan did set up a private fund to compensate surviving Korean women in the 1990s, but domestic pressure in Korea caused a number of these women to decline compensation.


Abe has travelled widely throughout Asia since becoming prime minister - he especially wants to establish close relations with Korea and with China. He has apologized in Japan's Diet, and he has indicated that he will stand by the Kono statement, even in the aftermath of the Asahi retraction.

Multiple apologies cannot undo what Abe's ancestors did almost a century ago, when times were different. What Japan does deserve is recognition of its impressive record as a democratic, free market economy over the past 69 years. Accused of free-riding militarily on the United States during the Cold War, Japan's naval defense force contributed mightily to a combined U.S.-Japanese anti-submarine network that successfully deterred 100 Soviet Pacific Fleet nuclear and conventional submarines. In 1991, Japan raised taxes and contributed more than $13 billion to support the U.S.-led coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Abe is accused by some of being a nationalist who wants to rebuild Japan's military power, but a close reading of his statements and his actions testify to a desire to rebuild Japan's economy peacefully and to become a more capable partner in the U.S.-Japan alliance, which most Asian nations other than China and North Korea believe maintains peace and security in the Western Pacific.

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