- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Japanese officials have apologized at least 54 times for the country’s historical aggression against its Asian neighbors during World War II. And, almost without fail, these acts of contrition are effectively negated by revisionist statements from a rogue’s gallery of public figures.
The latest such villain is Katsuto Momii, the new chair of Japan’s public broadcasting network and the man thought to be Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first choice to head the publicly-funded network. He re-ignited Japan’s never-ending debate over "comfort women" on Saturday during a press conference by suggesting Japan’s wartime practice of forcing women into brothels for the use of the country’s army was not unique to Japan. "Do you think it only happened in South Korea?" he asked, referring to the such programs during Japan’s occupation there. "I believe it could be found in all regions that were at war. Can you say such facilities were not available in Germany or France? It could be found everywhere in Europe. Why do you think the Netherlands still has its red-light district?" (In this case, Momii’s remarks were particularly ill-timed, coinciding with the death of 89-year-old Hwang Keum-ja, a former comfort woman and activist.)
The issue of comfort women is particularly sensitive. Historians estimate that Japan’s military forced up to 200,000 women from South Korea, China, and the Philippines into sexual servitude during the war, but it wasn’t until 1993 that the country formally acknowledged the practice, let alone the cruelty and suffering it wrought on the women involved. At that time, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono released a statement apologizing for Japan’s use of so-called comfort stations and established the Asian Women’s Fund to privately collect reparations funds for former comfort women. Kono’s statement constitutes Japan’s official position on comfort women, but every few years some revisionist politician comes along and rouses the public ire by challenging it.
In 2007, Prime Minister Abe himself rekindled the debate when he told reporters that there was "no evidence" that Japanese soldiers coerced women into sexual servitude and announced that Japan would make no further apologies on the matter. He’s since changed his tune, saying that his "heart aches acutely when I think about those who had to go through painful experiences beyond description. I am no different from successive prime ministers on that point." But a few months later, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto once more stoked the controversy by telling reporters that comfort women played a vital role in providing relief for soldiers.
Clearly, Momii’s comments aren’t without precedent and, as the Japan Times notes, many right-leaning Japanese officials are of the mind that comfort stations were essentially no different or worse than state-regulated brothels operated in other countries. Momii seems to take this view, too, as his equation of comfort stations with the Netherland’s legal and regulated sex industry implies that comfort women were prostitutes, rather than prisoners. His statement is particularly ironic given that the Japanese military also forced several dozen Dutch women into comfort stations during the war. Digging himself deeper, Momii added that "under current morals, using comfort women is wrong. But comfort women accompanying the military was a reality of that time."
While Momii went to great lengths to present the use of comfort woman not as an extreme practice but as a common feature of World War II, in reality the Japanese army took the practice much further than other belligerents at the time. While allied forces are known to have raped some 14,000 European women during World War II (including in France), those crimes don’t constitute the same kind of sanctioned, systematic practice of sexual servitude practiced by the Japanese military.
Germany, on the other hand, maintained concentration camp brothels, forcing women to service soldiers. But do the heinous extremes of Nazi cruelty neutralize Japan’s culpability in similar crimes? Obviously not. While Germany has in recent decades undergone a painful process of atonement for the country’s crimes during World War II, Japan has fallen far short of its former ally in reckoning with the country’s wartime legacy. Germany has the Holocaust Memorial and countless other reminders of the country’s dark past; Japan has no such monuments to the victims of wartime aggression.
Instead, Japanese politicians make a point of carrying out regular pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, which pays tribute to fallen Japanese soldiers, including 14 Class-A war criminals. Predictably, Abe’s recent trip to Yasukuni inflamed public opinion in both China and South Korea. And with Abe leading the way, it should come as no surprise that his lieutenants continue to confuse being an apologist for a true apology.