I always find it interesting when currents events tie directly into something I happen to be studying or researching. However, this time the link is, in my opinion, an unfortunate one.
We've talked a bit about comfort women, are reading about the issue this week, and will surely address it again in the future. If memory serves, Grace was one of the first to bring the issue up in our blog in a reference to a resolution under consideration on the Hill that would call on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the role of the Japanese military in coercing women into sexual servitude. (Of course, depending on one's proclivities, it could be argued that an apology has been issued several times.)
It seems the prospects of that happening, and of reconciliation over the larger host of wrongs associated with Japan's wartime activities, have just grown a bit more dim. In both its Thursday and Friday editions, the IHT carried remarks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that flatly deny that Japan's military forced women to serve as prostitutes during World War II. In the interest of accuracy, I want to be clear: from the stories themselves it seems that Abe is denying that there was coercion involved, not that there were brothels or a sex industry during WWII. (The story quotes Abe directly as saying, "There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it.")
Elaborating on the point, Nariaki Nakayama, a conservative Japanese lawmaker and the leader of a group of lawmakers who want to revise the 1993 government declaration that acknowledged the military's role in setting up brothels and coercing women into serving in them, implies that brothels arose out of demand like any other business and were run privately. (He uses a rather poor analogy comparing brothels to college cafeterias....although I'm not sure any other analogy here would have been better). He hints that the issue of coercion is the element of the controversy that reflects negatively on the honor of Japanese. (The article mentions an important point: the 1993 statement was issued, but not adopted by Japan's Parliament.)
The author of the articles, Norimitsu Onishi, then goes on to state that these statements are a signal that the Japanese government is preparing to reject the 1993 statement and connects them to a larger conservative movement in Japan to revise history.
If Norimitsu Onishi is right, and Abe is doing so to bolster his public approval ratings, this has troubling implications for the role that domestic political shifts, especially with respect to populism and nationalism, play in efforts to address history in Asia. By association, it makes the closer integration and stability that some hope might flow from reconciliation that much less likely to emerge.
My gut reaction was that it seemed insensitive for Japanese politicians to be picking the issue apart (isolating the aspect of coercion) instead of focusing on righting the wrongs that have been committed. However, the connection to honor struck me. It seems particularly important to at least one of the lawmakers involved in the move to rescind the 1993 statement.
What about the element of coercion so offends Japanese honor? Are we then to infer that there is no dishonor in institutionalized, government supported prostitution? Will such statements really help Abe's approval rating, both within conservative power circles and among the public? (If we accept the author's assertion regarding what might have motivated Abe.) Are they worth the potential international fall out? (Someone must have done the political calculus and thought so.) There's quite a bit to say about what might have motivated Abe's statement and the effort among conservatives to revise history. But I guess, picking from among many sentiments, I just find Abe's words and the actions of his associates...well....not very helpful.