Tag Archives: “Comfort Women”

Selden: How can the U.S. criticize Japanese atrocities?

Mark Selden, coordinator of Japan Focus, asks:

[M]ore than six decades since Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, by what right does an American critically address issues of the Nanjing Massacre and Japan’s wartime atrocities? Stated differently, in the course of those six decades US military forces have repeatedly violated international law and humanitarian ethics, notably in Korea, Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the course of those decades, Japan has never fought a war, although it has steadfastly backed the US in each of its wars

In “Japanese and American War Atrocities, Historical Memory and Reconciliation,” Selden attempts to lay out a comparative framework to examine Japanese and U.S. atrocities and trace their significance to today. As implied in the quote above, condemnation hasn’t necessarily been going around in proportion to atrocity. The article begins by taking up the Nanjing Massacre.

Selden outlines quickly what happened, and emphasizes that not only do the events at Nanjing constitute an atrocity, but those events were a beginning of a longer string of atrocities that would last until the end of the war. He writes, “In short, the anarchy first seen at Nanjing paved the way for more systematic policies of slaughter carried out by the Japanese military throughout the countryside. … Nanjing then is less a typical atrocity than a key event that shaped the everyday structure of Japanese atrocities over eight years of war.”

He goes on to address U.S. actions, noting the U.S. “has never been required to change the fundamental character of the wars it wages, to engage in self-criticism at the level of state or people, or to pay reparations to other nations or to individual victims of war atrocities.”

The article takes on the bombing of cities, culminating in the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombings. He questions the U.S. and Japanese number for casualties in the Tokyo bombings:

An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas. Given a near total inability to fight fires of the magnitude and speed produced by the bombs, casualties could have been several times higher than these estimates. The figure of 100,000 deaths in Tokyo may be compared with total US casualties in the four years of the Pacific War—103,000—and Japanese war casualties of more than three million.

Selden also alludes to wars in Korea, Indochina, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq, focusing not on the big name atrocities but on “foundational practices that systematically violate international law provisions.” He lists what apologies or acknowledgements he can find from the United States, but doesn’t find many.

I think an important if not entirely new point in the essay is that the Tokyo Tribunal was a starting point for a sort of two-tiered system, in which Germans would make amends, Japanese would give concessions to their U.S. occupiers, and the United States would begin what is now more than 60 years of life outside international law. I won’t say that international law is widely followed, but this is something to think about:

Only by engaging the issues raised by such a reexamination [of the bombing of Japanese cities]—from which Americans were explicitly shielded by judges during the Tokyo Tribunals—is it possible to begin to approach the Nuremberg ideal, which holds victors as well as vanquished to the same standard with respect to crimes against humanity, or the yardstick of the 1949 Geneva Accord, which mandates the protection of all civilians in time of war. This is the principle of universality proclaimed at Nuremberg and violated in practice by the US ever since.

Measuring Progress From Wen's Japan Visit

What’s come out of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit in Tokyo? Well, the Associated Press has a quick list. Here are the parts that might actually be news, instead of reiterations of things like agreeing to work for a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula:

  • Agreements to work for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol and to work on more energy efficient technology got a higher profile in this meeting than they had before, but are not exactly new proposals unless other details emerge.
  • AP reports that the leaders agreed to “[s]trengthen cooperation in defense policy, including reciprocal visits by warships.” This could be real progress toward the reduction of mutual fear and could contribute to regional security, since joint military activities educate sailors about their counterparts, potentially lowering tension in flash-point situations.
  • An agreement to “[s]peed up Japan’s cleanup of chemical weapons left in China from the World War II era” may have been a calculated concession by Abe, given his nationalism and hard stance on history.
  • Agreeing to “face up to history” may sound like something, but it’s been said over and over by Japanese leaders apparently with little relation to actual actions, conciliatory or not.
  • There was more talk about another Abe visit to China this, following up on last year’s after he entered office. This may be the first mention of a possible visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Japan in 2008.
  • And as Japan weighs whether to join the United States in WTO action over Chinese intellectual property practices, the two sides agreed to “[w]ork together to promote intellectual property rights.”

AP has no mention of an expected decision by China to allow Japanese rice imports. But this list may not be comprehensive. I’ll have my eyes out for more over the coming days. I haven’t seen anything on so-called “comfort women” yet either, but it would not be unusual for that issue to go undiscussed in public during the diplomatic visit.

UPDATE: There’s that rice agreement.

Abe Apologizes, Xinhua Seems Satisfied, Reuters More Skeptical

Surrounding Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s trip to Japan this weekend, Japanese PM Abe Shinzo “expressed an unfeigned apology to ‘comfort women.'” Or did was the headline that he “trie[d] damage control over WW2 sex slaves”?

If you ask the Chinese official news agency, which often serves as an outlet for the Chinese government’s scoldings of Japanese leaders for “inappropriate” statements on history, Abe really meant it. In a report offering almost no details, Xinhua writes:

TOKYO, March 11 (Xinhua) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday expressed unfeigned apology to “comfort women” who were forced by Japan’s then military government into sex slavery during World War II.

In a TV program of NHK earlier in the day, Abe also reiterated that his government will not change the policy of honoring the Kono statement.

The prime minister’s remarks were a big conversion from what he said on Thursday, when he hinted a reinvestigation of the facts unearthed in 1993 by the previous official probe which gave birth to the Kono statement in the same year. …

In what I’ve come to know as the language of Xinhua stories, my hunch is this reflects a desire among the decision-makers in Chinese media to put the “comfort women” aside. Reuters, under the more skeptical headline quoted above, has some more detail:

On Sunday, Abe repeated that the 1993 apology remained in effect. “We have stated our heartfelt apologies to the ‘comfort women’ at the time who suffered greatly and were injured in their hearts,” Abe said in an interview with NHK television. “I want to say that that sentiment has not changed at all.”

The furore precedes a visit to Tokyo in mid-April by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Abe’s trip to Washington later that month.

In a sign the Bush administration was growing concerned, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer last week advised Tokyo not to renege on the 1993 apology, known as the “Kono Statement” after the chief cabinet secretary in whose name it was issued.

“No friend of Japan would want Japan to back away from the Kono Statement,” Schieffer told Japanese reporters on Friday

The Reuters article quotes a Sofia University political science professor as saying that the U.S. headlines surrounding this story might have led the Abe team to worry about the opinions of the Japanese public. “When Asian governments criticise Japan, no one cares but when it’s reported in the New York Times, they have to react,” said the professor, Nakano Koichi. “They care about the American elite being upset.”

Let’s see what Rep. Honda has to say about this on the Hill Thursday.

Abe's 'Comfort Women' denial: U.S. reaction, a victim speaks, and classifieds

Just joining us? See this entry and this follow-up.

New developments:

  • U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte would not comment on Abe’s specific words, but AP reports:

    “Our view is that what happened during the war was most deplorable,” he said when asked about the sex slave issue. “But … as far as some kind of resolution of this issue, this is something that must be dealt with between Japan and the countries that were affected.”

  • Occidentalism posts two Korean newspaper ads from 1944 seeking 慰安婦, or “comfort women,” who were promised what amounts to a salary and a signing bonus. From the post:

    The newspaper ads suggest that, at least in Korea, the recruitment of “comfort women” was open, legitimate, and socially acceptable. They are also evidence that the women were well paid. For example, a commenter going by the name of “Void” wrote that the salary of a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army was only 110 yen per month, which means that the women would have been receiving almost triple the salary of a Japanese army lieutenant.

    Even the Kono Statement acknowledged that some women were recruited in the open and some by force. The ads certainly don’t imply “legitimate and socially acceptable.” Just because you can buy something from a newspaper ad doesn’t mean society thinks it’s OK. Further, the newspaper may have been controlled by Japanese forces, and under imperial administration, it would be misleading to say open press reflected the norms of the people being dominated.

  • Meanwhile, a Korean woman who has spoken out at the U.S. Congress about her experience as a sex slave reemphasized to reporters in broken Japanese her experience of abduction and brutal rape during enslavement. Hers is only one example of several that have surfaced in the day’s press reports. Here’s Lee Yong-soo, 78:

    “I cried ‘mother, mother,’ but they never stopped. They used electric shocks to torture me. They kicked me. They cut me,” she said tearfully in broken Japanese.

    “After I returned home after the war, I did not tell anyone about what happened to me,” she said.

    She said she has been staging protests for 16 years outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul to demand an apology.

    “Japan forcibly took me away. I am a living witness. I will tell my story wherever,” she said. “I demand the prime minister of Japan apologise.”

    I don’t have any independent information on this woman’s account, but what she describes sounds a lot like “coercion” to me.

More on Abe's 'Comfort Women' Denial

Japan Probe has a good entry that digs up the transcript for the October statement I referred to twice previously. Abe was responding to questions from Shii Kazuo, the chair of the executive committee of the Japanese Communist Party, and insisted that his cabinet would follow the Kono Statement. Abe said his previous questioning of the statement centered around the issue of whether middle school students ought to be taught about the “comfort stations” and around the definition of “coercion.” Here’s a portion of what Abe said under Shii’s questioning:

Abe: My understanding at that time was that the Kono statement was intended to admit that the Japanese government was involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the recruitment of comfort women, express apologies and remorse for that, and promise to study in what way the government should express its apology and remorse. At the time, I questioned whether a junior high school textbook should include descriptions of military comfort women. For example, I thought it was necessary to first take into account the state of children’s development. I also thought it important to ascertain whether there was coercion in the narrow sense of the word. I said that if there are differences of opinion regarding the facts, we may have to reconsider including the material in the textbook.

I said that nothing substantiates the fact of coercion in the narrow sense of the word. When I discussed this issue, I pointed out that the name of YOSHIDA Seiji cited in textbooks as a person in charge of the recruitment of comfort women was later found to be a mistake. That was a question I raised in my statement. [Full transcript mirrored here.]

James’ post at Japan Probe also points to Matt of Occidentalism‘s more accurate translation of Abe’s recent statement:


“It is a fact there was no proof to support coercion as it was initially defined”


“We must premise it [the kono statement about comfort women] on the thought that the definition of it [coercion] had been greatly changed from its [initial] definition”

The English language media (including my previous post, which was dashed off rather quickly) did not accurately represent the fact that Abe’s statement is hedged in language about the definition of coercion. It’s important to understand the subtleties of the rhetoric Abe is using when considering the domestic audience, but in international affairs, this sort of slight misquote is standard procedure. It may be that with slipping poll numbers, Abe finds it necessary to appeal to his long-time base: rightists and nationalists in the LDP.