The Stain of Sexual Slavery

The Japanese government’s censorship of nationally used school textbooks — deleting or downplaying the many bad things Japan did during World War II — has been going on for decades. But it is only recently, with a neo-fascist prime minister back in power, that such official censorship is now moving into dangerous areas beyond Japan’s borders and into textbooks used in overseas countries.

In January of this year, the Tokyo-based publisher Suken Shuppan announced that it will drop the terms “comfort women” and “forcibly taken away” from newly published textbooks to be used starting in the new school year in April. It is widely assumed (though not confirmed or denied by the publisher) that the pressure for such a change came from the government itself.

Terms like 慰安婦 (ianfu, literally “comfort women”) and 強制連行 (kyosei-renko, “forcibly taken away”) are sensitive, loaded terms in Japan, even after all these years. That is because they convey how the military of Japan had kidnapped, coerced or physically forced thousands of fellow Asians into slave labor and sexual slavery during the war.

Perhaps emboldened by their success at such textbook censorship at home here in Japan, some right-wing Japanese historians have now turned their ire toward a university-level textbook published in the United States and are disputing some of its contents.

Far-rightist prime minister Shinzo Abe recently expressed “shock” from the floor of Japan’s parliament about that particular U.S. textbook and pledged to do what he could to make sure the “correct” view of Japan’s history is reflected in the book instead.

That textbook, titled Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, is a hefty, 1,000-page world history textbook published by McGraw-Hill in the United States. I have recently obtained a copy of the new sixth edition of this textbook from the publisher and am considering whether I will use it as a supplementary book for my own university course in Japan this coming school year.

So, let me share with you the precise part of the U.S. textbook that has Abe and other right-wing revisionists in Japan all up in arms. It appears in the book’s Chapter 36, “New Conflagrations: World War II and the Cold War”, at the bottom of pages 874-875:

Comfort Women
Women’s experiences in war were not always ennobling or empowering. The Japanese army forcibly recruited, conscripted, and dragooned as many as two hundred thousand women aged fourteen to twenty to serve in military brothels, called “comfort houses” or “consolation centers.” The army presented the women to the troops as a gift from the emperor, and the women came from Japanese colonies such as Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria and from occupied territories in the Philippines and elsewhere in southeast Asia. The majority of the women came from Korea and China.

Once forced into this imperial prostitution service, the “comfort women” catered to between twenty and thirty men each day. Stationed in war zones, the women often confronted the same risks as soldiers, and many became casualties of war. Others were killed by Japanese soldiers, especially if they tried to escape or contracted venereal diseases. At the end of the war, soldiers massacred large numbers of comfort women to cover up the operation. The impetus behind the establishment of comfort houses for Japanese soldiers came from the horrors of Nanjing [China in 1937], where the mass rape of Chinese women had taken place. In trying to avoid such atrocities, the Japanese army created another horror of war. Comfort women who survived the war experienced deep shame and hid their past or faced shunning by their families. They found little comfort or peace after the war.

That’s it, in its entirety: two paragraphs, 235 words in total, out of a thousand pages in the textbook.

One of the book’s authors, University of Hawaii professor Herbert F. Ziegler, recently got a firsthand taste of how Japanese government censorship works during a surprise visit to his campus office by a representative of Japan’s government, insisting that those two paragraphs were wrong and needed to be changed. This eye-opening interview with Ziegler reveals just how far the government of Japan will go to whitewash the truth of history, even in foreign countries.

Ziegler, in the interview, appears at a loss in understanding why the Japanese government is going to such great lengths to rewrite this U.S. history textbook. But take a closer look: The answer is right there in the first paragraph, third sentence, reading “...the army presented the women to the troops as a gift from the emperor...”.

If you live in Japan long enough, you learn to read between the lines where Japan’s royal family is concerned, and it seems that what is really offending the right-wing Abe administration of Japan most (aside from the high numbers of women listed as sexual slaves) is the fact that the emperor’s honor is unforgivably stained by the notion that the imperial Japanese army “presented the women to the troops as a gift from the emperor”.

That phrase, I would say, is undeniably true but is also open to being misconstrued. The army of Japan probably didn’t officially announce to the troops at the time: “Now, these girls are a gift from the emperor, boys. Go and have some fun with them”. But on the other hand, it didn’t need to say it. It would automatically be assumed by the troops that those thousands of Asian girls — many of whom were not even women yet — were “property” of the imperial Japanese army and that they, the soldiers and officers, could do whatever they wanted with them. “A gift”, in fact, may even be too polite a term to describe the brutal institution of sexual slavery that Japan had in place in those days.

We would also do well to understand that unlike Germany and Italy, Japan as a fascist military state fought the war in the name of Emperor Hirohito, who, like all other emperors before him, was considered a god under Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion. In other words, World War II for Japan was every bit a holy war in its own way as the kind we see today by a small but violent element of Islamic fundamentalism. Different names, same game.

Of course, Emperor Hirohito, under the terms of postwar surrender by the Americans, renounced his divine status and was treated from then on simply as a “symbol” of the Japanese state. He was no longer a god and held no political power. But alas, old thinking dies hard, and there is still a “cult of the emperor” in Japan among rabid rightists today that treats the slightest perceived staining of the emperor’s honor as an inexcusable act that must be protested or avenged.

So far the publisher, McGraw-Hill, to its credit, has resisted any pressure by the government of Japan to censor the offending parts of the book. Likewise, a group of U.S. scholars has also recently stood firmly behind the textbook and its U.S. authors. In return, however, a group of Japanese scholars has turned up the heat and vowed to fight on, sending a couple of respected academics from its ranks to attack the U.S. textbook before the foreign and Japanese press in Tokyo just a few days ago.

Japanese society may be used to blatant censorship of this sort, but the rest of the world is a different story. Book publishers in overseas countries, unlike their timid counterparts in Japan, are not going to roll over and play dead at the first sign of an unhappy and bullying government. My hope is that both McGraw-Hill and the U.S. textbook authors spell out in no uncertain terms what the arrogant revisionists in Japan can do with their suggested “corrections” for this book.

But much more importantly than that, we should remember that the so-called staining of the Japanese emperor’s “honor” pales in comparison to the horrific stain of sexual slavery that destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent girls and young women from countries throughout Asia during that part of the 20th century. Until Japan comes to term with the sheer inhumanness of its past system of institutionalized rape and sexual slavery, it will continue to be distrusted and isolated among its fellow Asian nations in the future.

Not only should school textbooks around the world continue to publish the facts about Japan’s imperially sanctioned system of sexual slavery during World War II, those textbooks would do well to devote much more than two paragraphs to one of the darkest periods of recent human history. The whole tragic truth about the victims of sexual slavery, uncut and unpolished, must continue to be told.

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