Past Matters

Within the next few weeks the House of Representatives will vote on a resolution calling upon Japan to fully acknowledge its role in enslaving scores of thousands of military prostitutes before and during World War II. It is a strange, righteous measure designed to correct the indignity of history denied. And, as Ronald Spector's new study of postwar Asia, In the Ruins of Empire, reminds us, it relies on a history incomplete.

The sorrowful story of what are frequently called the "comfort women" is so well-documented that it should be indisputable. Pervasive cruelty was the norm in areas controlled by Japan's Imperial Army. Native populations were inevitably subjected to the brutality of a military reared on unquestioning loyalty to a warrior code and myths of national supremacy. Sexual coercion was not confined to the hellish tableaus of armies on rampages like the Rape of Nanking -- it also occurred within the carefully institutionalized confines of army "comfort stations."

One Korean woman told of being visited by 20 men a day, and then beaten when she begged an officer to stop:

that soldier said, "It is the command of the army. The country's order is the Emperor's order. If you have something to say, you can say it to the Emperor." Then he beat me. I was in a coma for three days. Even when I regained consciousness, I couldn't move. Even now I feel pain from that time, and scars remain.

Estimates vary, but somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 women were starved, tricked, or forced into prostitution for the Japanese empire.

Japan still has yet to undergo anything like the soul-searching that occurred in Germany a generation after the end of World War II. Emperor Hirohito continued to sit on the throne after the end of the war, where he served as a poignant symbol for the nationalists who refused to accept that the rising sun had ever set. Many still have not; textbooks whitewash Imperial Army atrocities, and in June a group of conservative Japanese lawmakers took out an ad in the Washington Post under the headline "THE FACTS." It claimed the comfort women were "working under a system of licensed prostitution that was commonplace around the world at the time" -- as if using armed men to force women into "comfort stations" was the moral equivalent of opening a Nevada bordello. This analogy doesn't go far enough for some lawmakers. One of them compared the comfort stations to "college cafeterias run by private companies."

The Japanese government apologized for its treatment of the comfort women in a 1993 statement. But since then resurgent nationalists have relentlessly undermined the government's admission of institutional support. Now they claim that any abuses of the comfort women were carried out by private contractors or rogue officials. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, leader of the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party, has mimicked the actions of his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. He visits a shrine for war criminals, or minimizes the suffering of civilians during the war, and then issues a mealy-mouthed apology when the inevitable international outcry ensues. Abe and Koizumi have always pulled back from saying what they essentially believe -- that the Japanese empire wasn't all that bad -- for fear of permanently damaging relations with China and Korea.

The U.S. House resolution on comfort women, sponsored by Rep. Mike Honda, says "the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner." Honda considers himself an "educator." That is a strange business for a politician, but Honda has an unusual history -- he was interned along with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. He believes that historical responsibility extends beyond individuals to encompass the institutions of society. It is not enough for many of Japanese citizens to acknowledge their country's war crimes. Their government must do it too, and with sincerity.

Japan's leaders are much more likely to respond to pressure from foreign governments as opposed to foreign citizens. Honda's resolution is battering ram designed to infuriate war crimes deniers. In this respect it will certainly succeed, and it may educate the public as well. But it does history a small but significant disservice by omitting mention of the U.S. policies that have for so long allowed Japanese governments to ignore the former comfort women. They began even in the first days after the end of the war.

In his new book, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia, Spector quotes an American guidebook for soldiers in post-war Korea, which suggested "Just say you don't know anything about it" in response to questions about politics from natives in the place where the largest group of Japan's military prostitutes came from. This comment is emblematic of the quick transition the U.S. made from a victorious conqueror to a non-judgmental ally of Japan. The initial American emissaries to Korea treated the civilians they encountered there "rudely" -- but their relations with the Japanese were "polite and friendly."

In the Ruins of Empire is a wide-ranging study of the post-war occupations that we have now forgot. In the wake of the Iraq invasion, neoconservatives frequently pointed to Japan and Germany as models for occupation. This book explores how in four Asian countries (China, Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia), in just a few short years after the war, the vacuum left by Japan's soldiers was filled by Americans, Soviets, dying colonial powers and fractious nationalist groups. Spector previously wrote Eagle Against the Sun, a landmark account of the war in the Pacific.

With careful character studies and large scale stories, Spector details the many strange bedfellows created in the aftermath of World War II. What emerges is an impression of how the logic of the Cold War subjected moral imperatives to geopolitical necessities. China's Koumintang, headed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, employed departing Japanese soldiers against Mao's communists. In Vietnam, the country's British and French occupiers used Japanese forces to thwart the Vietminh's attacks on Saigon. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's once-expressed desire to see French colonies emancipated was tossed aside, and the French returned to Indochina as if the Japanese occupation had been nothing more than a minor interlude. Vichy collaborators returned to their roles as colonial administrators. Hoping to stifle communist sentiments in Korea, the United States installed into power conservative politicians who had months before openly collaborated with the Japanese. In Indonesia, British and Dutch occupiers worked with one Japanese general almost up until the day he was shipped off to the Tokyo tribunal.

The countries were different, but the pattern was the same. Even as they were trying Japanese commanders for war crimes, the allies were making moral compromises to maintain colonial empires and to keep Asian dominoes standing. In those first few months of occupation the stage was set for much of what was to follow in Cold War Asia. In the ruins of empire, a new order was set up, one where the Japanese state, now reconstituted as a constitutional monarchy, was to serve as a stalwart anti-communist ally. Official American demands for restitution for Japan's victims were eschewed for fear of upsetting a vital regional ally. Tojo was hung and the Pacific empire done, but the Emperor himself lived on -- and on and on and on. He died in 1989, at the ripe old age of 87.

Mike Honda's resolution may accomplish a small victory for history by adding to the international demands for a truly heartfelt apology to the "comfort women" from the Japanese government. It is a refreshingly direct saber-rattle for truth. But it is an odd document, a plea for honesty from the U.S. government, which has let Japan's leaders get away with twisting the story for decades. When the past is up for debate, everything must be considered, including the history of the distortion of history itself. Still, Honda's resolution is better late then never -- for half a century the United States has ignored the cries of the comfort women.