THE SATURDAY PROFILE
In Japan, a Historian Stands by Proof of Wartime Sex Slavery
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
“The Japanese military itself newly built this system, took the initiative to create this system, maintained it and expanded it.”
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: March 31, 2007
IT was about 15 years ago, recalled Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a mild-mannered historian, when he grew fed up with the Japanese government’s denials that the military had set up and run brothels throughout Asia during World War II.
Instead of firing off a letter to a newspaper, though, Mr. Yoshimi went to the Defense Agency’s library and combed through official documents from the 1930s. In just two days, he found a rare trove that uncovered the military’s direct role in managing the brothels, including documents that carried the personal seals of high-ranking Imperial Army officers.
Faced with this smoking gun, a red-faced Japanese government immediately dropped its long-standing claim that only private businessmen had operated the brothels. A year later, in 1993, it acknowledged in a statement that the Japanese state itself had been responsible. In time, all government-approved junior high school textbooks carried passages on the history of Japan’s military sex slaves, known euphemistically as comfort women.
“Back then, I was optimistic that this would effectively settle the issue,” Mr. Yoshimi said. “But there was a fierce backlash.”
The backlash came from young nationalist politicians led by Shinzo Abe, an obscure lawmaker at the time in the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who lobbied to rescind the 1993 admission of state responsibility. Their goal finally seemed close at hand after Mr. Abe became prime minister last September.
Mr. Abe said he would adhere to the 1993 statement, but he also undercut it by asserting that there was no evidence showing the military’s role in forcing women into sexual slavery. His comments incited outrage in Asia and the United States, where the House of Representatives is considering a nonbinding resolution that would call on Japan to admit unequivocally its history of sexual slavery and to apologize for it.
To Mr. Yoshimi, Mr. Abe’s denial sounded familiar. Until Mr. Yoshimi came along 15 years ago, the government had always maintained that there were no official documents to prove the military’s role in establishing the brothels. Mr. Abe was now saying there were no official documents to prove that the military forcibly procured the women — thereby discounting other evidence, including the testimony of former sex slaves.
“The fact is, if you can’t use anything except official documents, history itself is impossible to elucidate,” said Mr. Yoshimi, a history professor at Chuo University here.
The emphasis on official documents, according to Mr. Yoshimi and other historians, has long been part of the government’s strategy to control wartime history. In the two weeks between Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and the arrival of American occupation forces, wartime leaders fearing postwar trials incinerated so many potentially incriminating documents that the Tokyo sky was said to be black with smoke. Even today, Japan refuses to release documents that historians believe have survived and would shed light on Japan’s wartime history.
Although Mr. Yoshimi found official documents showing the military’s role in establishing brothels, he is not optimistic about unearthing documents about the military’s abduction of women.
“There are things that are never written in official documents,” he said. “That they were forcibly recruited — that’s the kind of thing that would have never been written in the first place.”
John W. Dower, a historian of Japan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Mr. Yoshimi’s “extremely impressive” work has “clarified the historical record in ways that people like Prime Minister Abe and those who support him refuse to acknowledge.”
MR. YOSHIMI grew up in Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan, in a household with fresh memories of the war. He traces his interest in history to a junior high school lecture on the nation’s American-written, pacifist Constitution and its guarantee of human rights. He was impressed that the Constitution “even had something to say about a kid like me in the countryside.”
After completing his studies at the University of Tokyo, Mr. Yoshimi concentrated on Japan’s postwar democratization. It was while searching for documents related to Japan’s wartime use of poison gas in the Defense Agency’s library that he first stumbled upon proof of the military’s role in sexual slavery.
Mr. Yoshimi copied the document but did not publicize his finding. At the time, no former sex slave had gone public about her experiences, and awareness of wartime sex crimes against women was low.
But in late 1991, former sex slaves in South Korea became the first to break their silence. When the Japanese government responded with denials, Mr. Yoshimi went back to the Defense Agency.
Of the half-dozen documents he discovered, the most damning was a notice written on March 4, 1938, by the adjutant to the chiefs of staff of the North China Area Army and Central China Expeditionary Force. Titled “Concerning the Recruitment of Women for Military Comfort Stations,” the notice said that “armies in the field will control the recruiting of women,” and that “this task will be performed in close cooperation with the military police or local police force of the area.”
In another document from July 1938, Naosaburo Okabe, chief of staff of the North China Area Army, wrote that rapes of local women by Japanese soldiers had deepened anti-Japanese sentiments and that setting up “facilities for sexual comfort as quickly as possible is of great importance.” Yet another, an April 1939 report by the headquarters of the 21st Army in Guangzhou, China, noted that the 21st Army directly supervised 850 women.
Mr. Yoshimi went public by telling Asahi Shimbun, a national daily newspaper. The attention led to years of harassment from the right wing, he said, including nightly phone calls.
These documents had survived because they had been moved 25 miles west of central Tokyo before the end of the war, Mr. Yoshimi said. The postwar American occupation forces had then confiscated the documents, eventually returning them to Japan in the 1950s.
DESPITE the government’s efforts to hide the past, Mr. Yoshimi succeeded in painting a detailed picture of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery: a system of military-run brothels that emerged in 1932 after Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, then grew with full-scale war against China in 1937 and expanded into most of Asia in the 1940s.
Between 50,000 and 200,000 women from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere were tricked or coerced into sexual slavery, Mr. Yoshimi said. Thousands from Korea and Taiwan, Japanese colonies at the time, were dispatched aboard naval vessels to serve Japanese soldiers in battlefields elsewhere in Asia. Unlike other militaries that have used wartime brothels, the Japanese military was the “main actor,” Mr. Yoshimi said.
“The Japanese military itself newly built this system, took the initiative to create this system, maintained it and expanded it, and violated human rights as a result,” he said. “That’s a critical difference.”
Mr. Yoshimi said he was unsurprised by the most recent moves to deny the wartime sex slavery. He said they were simply the culmination of a long campaign by nationalist politicians who have succeeded in casting doubt, in Japan, on what is accepted as historical fact elsewhere.
In 1997, all seven government-approved junior high school textbooks contained passages about the former sex slaves. Now, as a result of the nationalists’ campaign, only two out of eight do.
“Mr. Abe and his allies led that campaign,” Mr. Yoshimi said, “and now they occupy the center of political power.”