JIN-405 -- A Truth Commission to Exorcise the Ghost of a War Past

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Commentary on Japan's culture, economy and society
Issue No. 405
Wednesday March 7, 2007 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: A Truth Commission to Exorcise
the Ghost of a War Past

Chewing the cud with the two European friends in the car
the other day the conversation turned to the comfort
women controversy. One friend, a Brit, remarked Europeans
seldom talk about the war, and wondered why it still
simmered as an issue in East Asia.

I can think of two reasons. One is cynical. Unlike Europe,
development in Asia, where several countries are still
under the thumb of communists, has been uneven.
Governments and groups are tempted to shake down Japan,
still the rich kid on the block. The second reason is the
ineptness of Japanese government publicists. Japan just
can't seem to project an image of a nation contrite for the
sins of war. In short, Japan has been no Germany in the
postwar era.

The comfort women controversy is a case in point.

'Comfort woman' is a euphemism for women who provided sex
for Imperial Army troops at the front during the Second
World War. The controversy centers on the degree of
government complicity in establishing 'comfort stations' and
the circumstances of the women's recruitment.

The issue has been brought to the fore by a resolution
drafted by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee calling
for the Japanese Government to apologize for forcing women
from other Asian nations into sexual servitude for the
Imperial Army.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initially responded with the
comment that there was no evidence in support of the claim
that the Japanese military had physically coerced women to
work in frontline brothels. His comment drew a strong
protest from the South Korean Government.

Subsequently, in response to a question from an opposition
party legislator during a meeting of the House of
Councilors Budget Committee on Monday, Abe said he
supported the 1993 statement by Yohei Kono, then Chief
Cabinet Secretary. The so-called Kono statement
acknowledged Imperial Army involvement in enslaving women
in brothels.

Abe's flip-flops invited criticism overseas. Chief Cabinet
Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki came to his boss's defense,
'remarking Abe's comments had been misinterpreted.' He then
succeeded in muddying the government's position with this
comment, as translated by Kyodo: 'There may have been
coercion in a broad sense in recruiting the women, but
we do not believe that the women were physically taken by

According to politician-turned-lexicographer Shiozaki there
are two meanings of 'coercion.' The narrower one is
'bringing about by pressure, threats, or intimidation.' The
broader definition is 'bringing about by force.' So there
is a difference between Korean teenager's being forced to
board the truck bound for the brothel and her being told
she'll be beaten if she doesn't get in.

The Abe administration vacillates between apology and
indignant knee-jerk defense. The administration is loath to
exacerbate relations with neighbors, especially China, its
largest trading partner. Yet again, the nationalist Abe
and his cabinet prefer versions of history that pander to
the right-wing element of their constituency. I wonder if
anyone is happy with this endless chain of statement and

I've a recommendation. Abe should impanel a blue-ribbon
commission of historians and retired diplomats and military
officers to investigate the circumstances surrounding the
comfort women. It would consist of not only Japanese but
would also include men and women from those countries
that allegedly provided the comfort women. It would be
headed by a reputed scholar without political affiliation.
The commission would be given a generous budget to prepare
a report with recommendations within, say, a year or
18 months.

The Commission for Historical Truth of the Circumstances
of Comfort Women would have several benefits. It would
depoliticize the issue. It would put Abe on the high moral
ground as a truth seeker. It would placate foreign
governments. If the commission recommended an official
apology and payments to former comfort women, Abe or his
successor would be wise to accept those recommendations.
The commission would exorcise the ghost of a war past and
leave the government to focus on the challenges facing a
liberal democracy in the 21st century.
--Burritt Sabin

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