Global 'who's who' of Asia scholars urge Japan to own up to WWII atrocities

In a letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 187 scholars say Japan's wartime history has become 'distorted by nationalist invective' at a time of growing regional tensions.

Alex Gallardo/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come under repeated criticism for his attempts to actively revise Japan's World War II history.

Less than a week after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress, 187 of the world’s most prominent Asia scholars sent him a letter urging Japan to stop whitewashing its World War II history, including its policy of sexual slavery or “comfort women."

Scholars from 10 nations told Mr. Abe that current nationalist-led efforts to revise Japan's accounting of its colonial and wartime behavior are blocking East Asia's ability to properly celebrate the 70th anniversary of peace and prosperity following the war. They urged Mr. Abe to “act boldly” and take an accurate and just position on the past.

The list of signatories reads like a “Who’s Who” of Asian scholars, including Ezra Vogel and Akira Iriye of Harvard University, Ronald Dore of the London School of Economics, John Dower of MIT, and Herbert Bix of Binghamton University. The letter reached Abe on Monday.

“This year presents an opportunity for the government of Japan to show leadership by addressing Japan’s history of colonial rule and wartime aggression in both words and action,” the academics wrote.

While Japan has apologized for World War II, albeit obliquely in the view of its neighbors, Abe's administration has sought actively to revise that history in recent years. Analysts attribute this to an effort by Abe to give his nation a prouder and more confident posture in Asia at a time when China is rising.

In its coverage of the letter, The Japan Times on Thursday pointed out that, "Conservative and right-wing politicians, academics and media in Japan, as well as Abe, have long insisted the Japanese government and military was not directly involved in recruiting the women and did not force them to serve in comfort women stations."

Earlier this year Japan took the unusual step of requesting the US textbook company McGraw-Hill to change its account of Japan’s wartime practice of rounding up women in occupied nations and providing them as sex partners for its soldiers. Abe himself has been part of an effort to suggest the women behaved in a voluntary manner in nations like Korea, and that local Koreans organized the military brothels, not Japan.

The 187 historians took exception with that revision:

“The ‘comfort women’ system was distinguished by its large scale and systematic management under the military, and by its exploitation of young, poor, and vulnerable women in areas colonized or occupied by Japan,” their letter said.

Bloomberg notes that Abe’s speech to the US Congress was seen with less ardor among Japan’s neighbors including South Korea and China:

In a speech last week to a joint session of Congress … Abe offered ‘eternal condolences’ for American lives lost in the war, without apologizing to women from Korea and other nations forced into prostitution by the Imperial Army. Abe’s plans to make a ‘forward-looking’ statement to mark the August anniversary risk upsetting Asian neighbors that seek more contrition over the past.

Appealing to Abe’s speech April 29 on Capitol Hill about the universality of human rights, the historians asked that he apply that concept to the victims of the war.

“We applaud these sentiments and urge the Prime Minister to act boldly on all of them,” the scholars wrote.

The comfort women issue has resonated most loudly in South Korea, America’s other major East Asian ally. The new Japanese position on comfort women has so offended Seoul that President Park Geun-hye has refused all bilateral meetings with Abe until the Japanese leader adopts a “correct view of history,” as The Christian Science Monitor noted last week.

The Monitor quoted former South Korean foreign minister Han Sung-joo: 

The idea pushed by Japan that there was no exploitation of Korean women but that they were selling themselves to soldiers for monetary gain, is repugnant to a female president of Korea. Japan is making an all-out effort to reinvent their past and restore their honor and bring the US on their side. We see Korea moving more toward China, away from the US. Japan wants to be seen as a normal state, but doesn't want to act normally to achieve that. I don’t know where this will end.

The historians' letter to Abe said China and Korea as well as Japan faced problems with nationalist extremism:

This issue has become so distorted by nationalist invective in Japan as well as in Korea and China that many scholars, along with journalists and politicians, have lost sight of the fundamental goal of historical inquiry, which should be to understand the human condition and aspire to improve it.

Among the 187, 11 were from Harvard. While the bulk of signatories came from the US, six were from Canada, five each from Germany and the UK, four from Australia, three from Japan, two from Austria, and one each from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Singapore, according to South Korea's Hankyoreh. Their letter bolsters longstanding work done by Japanese scholars urging an honest accounting of Japan's war-related history.

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